Caves of Terror by Talbot Mundy
(The Grey Mahatma)
BOOK 6 IN THE YASMINI SERIES
First published as "The Gray Mahatma" in Adventure magazine, Nov
The Gray Mahatma
The Palace Of
Fear Is Death
The Pool Of
The Fire Bathers
The River Of
A Date With Doom
The Cave Of
MELDRUM STRANGE has "a way" with him. You need all your tact
to get him past the quarreling point; but once that point is left behind
there isn't a finer business boss in the universe. He likes to put his ringer
on a desk-bell and feel somebody jump in Tibet or Wei-hei-wei or Honolulu.
That's Meldrum Strange.
When he sent me from San Francisco, where I was enjoying a vacation, to
New York, where he was enjoying business, I took the first train.
"You've been a long time on the way," he remarked, as I walked into his
office twenty minutes after the Chicago flyer reached Grand Central Station.
"Look at this!" he growled, shoving into my hand a clipping from a Western
"What about it?" I asked when I had finished reading.
"While you were wasting time on the West Coast this office has been busy,"
he snorted, looking more like General Grant than ever as he pulled out a
cigar and started chewing it. "We've taken this matter up with the British
Government, and we've been retained to look into it."
"You want me to go to Washington, I suppose."
"You've got to go to India at once."
"That clipping is two months old," I answered. "Why didn't you wire me
when I was in Egypt to go on from there?"
"Look at this!" he answered, and shoved a letter across the desk.
It bore the address of a club in Simla.
Meldrum Strange, Esq., Messrs. Grim, Ramsden and Ross, New
Having recently resigned my commission in the British Indian army I am free
to offer my services to your firm, provided you have a sufficiently
responsible position here in India to offer me. My qualifications and record
are known to the British Embassy in Washington, D. C., to whom I am permitted
to refer you, and it is at the suggestion of — — (he gave the
name of a British Cabinet Minister who is known the wide world over) that I
am making this proposal; he was good enough to promise his endorsement to any
application I might care to make. If this should interest you, please send me
a cablegram, on receipt of which I will hold my services at your disposal
until your letter has time to reach Simla, when, if your terms are
satisfactory, I will cable my acceptance without further delay.
Yours faithfully, Athelstan King, V.C., D.S.O., etc.
"Do you know who he is?" demanded Strange. "That's the fellow who went to
Khinjan Caves — the best secret service officer the British ever had. I
cabled him, of course. Here's his contract. You take it to him. Here's the
whole dope about this propaganda. Take the quickest route to India, sign up
this man King, and go after them at that end for all the two of you are
worth. That's all."
My passport being unexpired, I could make the Mauretania and did.
Moreover I was merciless to the expense account. An aeroplane took me from
Liverpool to London, another from London to Paris.
I don't care how often you arrive in Bombay, the thrill increases. You
steam in at dawn by Gharipuri just as the gun announces sunrise, and the
dreamy bay glimmers like a prophet's vision — temples, domes, minarets,
palm-trees, roofs, towers, and masts.
Almost before the anchor had splashed into the spawn-skeined water off the
Apollo Bunder a native boat drew alongside and a very well-dressed native
climbed up the companion-ladder in quest of me. I had sent King a wireless,
but his messenger was away in advance of even the bankers' agents, who flock
on board to tout for customs business.
He handed me a letter which simply said that the bearer, Gulab Lal Singh,
would look after me and my belongings. So I paid attention to the man. He was
a strapping fellow, handsome as the deuce, with a Roman nose, and the eye of
a gentleman unafraid.
He said that Major King was in Bombay, but detained by urgent business.
However, he invited me to Major King's quarters for breakfast, so instead of
waiting for the regular launch I got into the native sailboat with him. And
he seemed to have some sort of talisman for charming officials, for on the
quay an officer motioned us through without even examining my passport.
We drew up finally in front of a neat little bungalow in a long street of
similar buildings intended for British officials. Gulab Lal Singh took me
straight into the dining room and carried in breakfast with his own hands,
standing behind my chair in silence while I ate.
Without much effort I could see his face in the mirror to my right, and
when I thought he wasn't noticing I studied him carefully.
"Is there anything further that the sahib would care for?" he asked
when the meal was finished.
"Yes," I said, pulling out an envelope. "Here's your contract, Major King.
If you're agreeable we may as well get that signed and mailed to New
I expected to see him look surprised, but he simply sat down at the table,
read the contract over, and signed it.
Then we went out on to a veranda that was shut off from the street by
brown kaskas tatties.
"How long does it take you to grow a beard?" was his first, rather
It was not long before I learned how differently he could treat different
individuals. He had simply chosen his extraordinary way of receiving me as
the best means of getting a real line on me without much loss of time. He did
not compliment me on having seen through his disguise, or apologize for his
own failure to keep up the deception. He sat opposite and studied me as he
might the morning newspaper, and I returned the compliment.
"You see," he said suddenly, as if a previous conversation had been
interrupted, "since the war, governments have lost their grip, so I resigned
from the army. You look to me like a kind of God-send. Is Meldrum Strange as
wealthy as they say?"
"Is he playing for power?"
"He's out to do the world good, but he enjoys the feel of it. He is
absolutely on the level."
"I have a letter from Strange, in which he says you've hunted and
prospected all over the world. Does that include India?"
"Know any of the languages?"
"Enough Hindustani to deceive a foreigner."
Mind you, I was supposed to be this fellow's boss.
"I think we'll be able to work together," he said after another long look
"Are you familiar with the facts?" he asked me.
"I've the dossier with me. Studied it on the ship of course."
"You understand then: The Princess Yasmini and the Gray Mahatma are the
two keys. The Government daren't arrest either, because it would inflame mob-
passion. There's too much of that already. I'm not in position to play this
game alone — can't afford to. I've joined the firm to get backing for
what I want to do; I'd like that point clear. As long as we're in harness
together I'll take you into confidence. But I expect absolutely free
"All right," I said. And for two hours he unfolded to me a sort of
panorama of Indian intrigue, including dozens of statements of sheer fact
that not one person in a million would believe if set down in cold print.
"So you see," he said at last, "there's something needed in the way of
unobtrusive inspection if the rest of the world is to have any kind of
breathing spell. If you've no objection we'll leave Bombay to-night and get
* * * * *
Athelstan King and I arrived, after certain hot days and choking nights,
at a city in the Punjab that has had nine names in the course of history. It
lies by a winding wide river, whose floods have changed the land-marks every
year since men took to fighting for the common heritage.
The tremendous wall, along whose base the river sucks and sweeps for more
than a third of the city's whole circumference, has to be kept repaired by
endless labor, but there are compensations. The fierce current guards and
gives privacy to a score of palaces and temples, as well as a burning
The city has been very little altered by the vandal hand of progress.
There is a red steel railway bridge, but the same framework carries a
From the bridge's northern end as far as the bazaar the main street goes
winding roughly parallel with the waterfront. Trees arch over it like a
cathedral roof, and through the huge branches the sun turns everything
beneath to gold, so that even the impious sacred monkeys achieve vicarious
beauty, and the scavenger mongrel dogs scratch, sleep, and are miserable in
There are modern signs, as for instance, a post office, some telegraph
wires on which birds of a thousand colors perch with an air of perpetual
surprise, and — tucked away in the city's busiest maze not four hundred
yards from the western wall — the office of the Sikh apothecary Mulji
Mulji Singh takes life seriously, which is a laborious thing to do, and
being an apostle of simple sanitation is looked at askance by the populace,
but he persists.
King's specialty is making use of unconsidered trifles and misunderstood
* * * * *
King was attired as a native, when we sought out Mulji Singh together and
found him in a back street with a hundred-yard-long waiting list of low-caste
and altogether casteless cripples.
And of course Mulji Singh had all the gossip of the city at his fingers'
ends. When he closed his office at last, and we came inside to sit with him,
he loosed his tongue and would have told us everything he knew if King had
not steered the flow of information between channels.
"Aye, sahib, and this Mahatma, they say, is a very holy fellow, who
works miracles. Sometimes he sits under a tree by the burning ghat, but at
night he goes to the temple of the Tirthankers, where none dare follow him,
although they sit in crowds outside to watch him enter and leave. The common
rumor is that at night he leaves his body lifeless in a crypt in that
Tirthanker temple and flies to heaven, where he fortifies himself with fresh
magic. But I know where he goes by night. There comes to me with boils a one-
legged sweeper who cleans a black panther's cage. The panther took his other
leg. He sleeps in a cage beside the panther's, and it is a part of his duty
to turn the panther loose on intruders. It is necessary that they warn this
one-legged fellow whenever a stranger is expected by night, who should not be
torn to pieces. Night after night he is warned. Night after night there comes
this Mahatma to spend the hours in heaven! There are places less like heaven
than her palace."
"Is he your only informant?" King demanded.
"Aye, sahib, the only one on that count. But there is another,
whose foot was caught between stone and stone when they lowered a trap-door
once in that Tirthanker temple. He bade the Tirthankers heal his foot, but
instead they threw him out for having too much knowledge of matters that they
said do not concern him. And he says that the trap-door opens into a passage
that leads under the wall into a chamber from which access is obtained by
another trap-door to a building inside herpalace grounds within a
stone-throw of that panther's cage. And he, too, says that the Mahatma goes
nightly to her palace."
"Are there any stories of her?" King inquired.
"Thousands, sahib! But no two agree. It is known that she fell foul
of the raj in some way, and they made her come to this place. I was
here when she came. She has a household of a hundred women —
maunds of furniture — maunds of it, sahib! She
gave orders to her men-servants to be meek and inoffensive, so when they
moved in there were not more than ten fights between them and the city-folk
who thought they had as much right to the streets. There was a yellow-fanged
northern devil who marshaled the serving-men, and it is he who keeps her
palace gate. He keeps it well. None trespass."
"What other visitors does she entertain besides the Mahatma?"
"Many, sahib, though few enter by the front gate. There are tales
of men being drawn up by ropes from boats in the river."
"Is there word of why they come?"
"Sahib, the little naked children weave stories of her doings. Each
has a different tale. They call her empress of the hidden arts. They say that
she knows all the secrets of the priests, and that there is nothing that she
cannot do, because the gods love her and the Rakshasas (male evil
spirits) and Apsaras (female evil spirits) do her bidding."
"What about this Tirthanker temple? Who controls it?"
"None knows that, sahib. It is so richly endowed that its priests
despise men's gifts. None is encouraged to worship in that place. When those
old Tirthankers stir abroad they have no dealings with folk in this city that
any man knows of."
"Are you sure they are Tirthankers?" asked King.
"I am sure of nothing, sahib. For aught I know they are
King gave him a small sum of money, and we walked away toward the burning
ghat, where there was nothing but a mean smell and a few old men with rakes
gathering up ashes. But outside the ghat, where a golden mohur tree cast a
wide shadow across the road there was a large crowd sitting and standing in
rings around an absolutely naked, ash-smeared religious fanatic.
The fanatic appeared to have the crowd bewildered, for he cursed and
blessed on no comprehensible schedule, and gave extraordinary answers to the
simplest questions, not acknowledging a question at all unless it suited
King and I had not been there a minute before some one asked him about the
"Aha! Who stares at the fire burns his eyes! A burned eye is of less use
than a raw one!"
Some laughed, but not many. Most of them seemed to think there was deep
wisdom in his answer to be dug for meditatively, as no doubt there was. Then
a man on the edge of the crowd a long way off from me, who wore the air of a
humorist, asked him about me.
"Does the shadow of this foreigner offend your honor's holiness?"
None glanced in my direction; that might have given the game away. It is
considered an exquisite joke to discuss a white man to his face without his
knowing it. The Gray Mahatma did not glance in my direction either.
"As a bird in the river — as a fish in the air — as a man in
trouble is the foreigner in Hind!" he answered.
Then he suddenly began, declaiming, making his voice ring as if his throat
were brass, yet without moving his body or shifting his head by a hair's
"The universe was chaos. He said, let order prevail, and order came
out of the chaos and prevailed. The universe was in darkness. He said,
let there be light and let it prevail over darkness; and light came out of
the womb of darkness and prevailed. He ordained the Kali-Yug
— an age of darkness in which all Hind should lie at the feet of
foreigners. And thus ye lie in the dust. But there is an end of night, and so
there is an end to Kali-Yug. Bide ye the time, and watch!"
King drew me away, and we returned up-street between old temples and new
iron-fronted stores toward Mulji Singh's quarters where he had left the
traveling bag that we shared between us.
"Is that Gray Mahatma linked up with propaganda in the U.S.A?" I asked,
"What's more," King answered, "he's dangerous; he's sincere — the
most dangerous type of politician in the world — the honest visionary,
in love with an abstract theory, capable of offering himself for martyrdom.
Watch him now!"
The crowd was beginning to close in on the Mahatma, seeking to touch him.
Suddenly he flew into a fury, seized a long stick from some one near him and
began beating them over the head, using both hands and laying on so savagely
that ashes fell from him like pipe-clay from a shaken bag, and several men
ran away with the blood pouring down their faces. However, they were reckoned
"Some of those will charge money to let other fools touch them," said
King. "Come on. Let's call on her now."
So we returned to Mulji Singh's stuffy little office, and King changed
into a Major's uniform.
"It isn't exactly according to Hoyle to wear this," he explained.
"However, she doesn't know I've resigned from the army."
NOBODY saw us walk up to Yasmini's palace gate and knock;
for whoever was abroad in the heat was down by the ghat admiring the
The bearded giant who had admitted us stood staring at King, his long,
strong fingers twitching. In his own good time King turned and saw fit to
"Oh, hallo Ismail!"
He held a hand out, but the savage flung arms about him that were as
strong as the iron gate-clamps, and King had to fight to break free from the
"Now Allah be praised, he is father of mercies! She warned me!" he
croaked. "She knows the smell of dawn at midnight! She said, 'He cometh
soon!' and none believed her, save only I. This very dawn said she, 'Thou,
Ismail,' she said, 'be asleep at the gate when he cometh and thine eyes shall
be thrown to the city dogs!' Aye! Oho!"
King nodded to lead on, and Ismail obeyed with a deal of pantomime
intended to convey a sense of partnership with roots in the past and its
The way was down a passage between high, carved walls so old that
antiquarians burn friendship in disputes not so much about the century as the
very era of that quiet art — under dark arches with latticed windows
into unexpected gardens fresh with the smell of sprinkled water — by
ancient bronze gateways into other passages that opened into stone-paved
courts with fountains in the midst — building joining on to building
and court meeting court until, where an old black panther snarled at us
between iron bars, an arch and a solid bronze door admitted us at last into
the woman's pleasance — a wonderland of jasmine, magnolia and
pomegranates set about a marble pool and therein mirrored among
Beyond the pool a flight of marble steps rose fifty feet until it passed
through a many-windowed wall into the panch mahal — the quarters
of the women. At their foot Ismail halted.
"Go thou up alone! Leave this elephant with me!" he said, nudging me and
pointing with his thumb toward a shady bower against the garden wall.
Without acknowledging that pleasantry King took my arm and we went
straight forward together, our tread resounding strangely on steps that for
centuries had felt no sterner shock than that of soft slippers and naked,
We were taking nobody entirely by surprise; that much was obvious. Before
we reached the top step two women opened a door and ran to meet us. One woman
threw over King's head such a prodigious garland of jasmine buds that he had
to loop it thrice about his shoulders. Then each took a hand of one of us and
we entered between doors of many-colored wood, treading on mat-strewn marble,
their bare feet pattering beside ours. There were rustlings to right and
left, and once I heard laughter, smothered instantly.
At last, at the end of a wide hall before many-hued silken curtains our
two guides stopped. As they released our hands, with the always surprising
strength that is part of the dancing woman's stock-in-trade, they slipped
behind us suddenly and thrust us forward through the curtains.
There was not much to see in front of us. We found ourselves in a paneled
corridor, whose narrow windows overlooked the river, facing a painted door
sixty paces distant at the farther end. King strode down the corridor and
The answer was one word that I did not catch, although it rang like a
suddenly struck chord of music, and the door yielded to the pressure of
I entered behind him and the door swung shut of its own weight with a
click. We were in a high-ceilinged, very long room, having seven sides. There
were windows to right and left. A deep divan piled with scented cushions
occupied the whole length of one long wall, and there were several huge
cushions on the floor against another wall. There was one other door besides
that we had entered by.
We stood in that room alone, but I know that King felt as uneasy as I did,
for there was sweat on the back of his neck. We were being watched by unseen
eyes. There is no mistaking that sensation.
Suddenly a voice broke silence like a golden bell whose overtones go
widening in rings into infinity, and a vision of loveliness parted the
curtains of that other door.
"My lord comes as is meet — spurred, and ready to give new kingdoms
to his king! Oh, how my lord is welcome!" she said in Persian.
Her voice thrilled you, because of its perfect resonance, exactly in the
middle of the note. She looked into King's eyes with challenging familiarity
that made him smile, and then eyed me wonderingly. She glanced from me to a
picture on the wall in blue of the Elephant-god — enormous, opulent,
urbane, and then back again at me, and smiled very sweetly.
"So you have brought Ganesha with you? The god of good luck! How
wonderful! How does one behave toward a real god?"
And while she said that she laid her hands on King's arms as naturally as
if he were a lover whom she had not seen perhaps since yesterday. Plainly,
there was absolutely nothing between him and her except his own obstinate
independence. She was his if he wanted her.
She took King's hand with a laugh that had its roots in past companionship
and led him to the middle, deepest window-seat, beneath which the river could
be heard gurgling busily.
Then, when she had drawn the silken hangings until the softened light
suggested lingering, uncounted hours, and had indicated with a nod to me a
cushion in the corner, she came and lay on the cushions close to King, chin
on hand, where she could watch his eyes.
King sat straight and square, watching her with caution that he did not
trouble to conceal. She took his hand and raised the sleeve until the broad,
gold, graven bracelet showed.
"That link forged in the past must bind us two more surely than an oath,"
she said smiling.
"I used it to show to the gatekeeper."
He sat coolly waiting for her next remark. And with almost unnecessary
candor began to remove the bracelet and offer it back to her. So she unmasked
her batteries, with a delicious little rippling laugh and a lazy, cat-like
movement that betokened joy in the danger that was coming, if I know anything
at all of what sign-language means.
"I knew that very day that you resigned your commission in the army, and I
laughed with delight at the news, knowing that the gods who are our servants
had contrived it. I know why thou art here," she said; and the change from
you to thou was not haphazard.
"It is well known, Princess, that your spies are the cleverest in India,"
"Spies? I need no spies as long as old India lives. Friends are
"Do all princesses break their promises?" he countered, meeting her eyes
"Never yet did I break one promise, whether it was for good or evil."
"Princess," he answered, looking sternly at her, "in Jamrud Fort you
agreed to take no part again in politics, national or international in return
for a promise of personal freedom and permission to reside in India."
"My promise was dependent on my liberty. But is this liberty — to be
forced to reside in this old palace, with the spies of the Government keeping
watch on my doings, except when they chance to be outwitted? Nevertheless, I
have kept my promise. Thou knowest me better than to think that I need to
break promises in order to outwit a government of Englishmen!"
"Quibbles won't help, Princess," he answered. "You promised to do nothing
that Government might object to."
"Well; will they object to my religion?" she retorted, mocking him. "Has
the British raj at last screwed up its courage to the point of
trespassing behind the purdah and blundering in among religious
No man in his senses ever challenges a woman's argument until he knows the
whole of it and has unmasked its ulterior purpose. So King sat still and said
nothing, knowing that that was precisely what she did not want.
"You must make terms with me, heaven-born!" she went on, changing her tone
to one of rather more suggestive firmness. "The Kali-Yug (age of
darkness) is drawing to a close, and India awakes! There is froth on the
surface — a rising here, an agitation there, a deal of wild talk
everywhere, and the dead old government proposes to suppress it in the dead
old ways, like men with paddles seeking to beat the waves down flat! But the
winds of God blow, and the boat of the men with the paddles will be upset
presently. Who then shall ride the storm? Their gunners will be told to shoot
the froth as it forms and rises! But if there is a wise man anywhere he will
make terms with me, and will set himself to guide the underlying forces that
may otherwise whelm everything. I think thou art wise, my heaven-born. Thou
wert wise once on a time."
"Do you think you can rule India?" King asked her; and he did not make the
mistake of suggesting ridicule.
"Who else can do it?" she retorted. "Do you think we come into the world
to let fate be our master? Why have I royal blood and royal views, wealth,
understanding and ambition, while the others have blindness and vague
yearnings? Can you answer?"
"Princess," he answered, "I had only one object in coming here."
"I know that," she said nodding.
"I have simply come to warn you."
"Chut!" she answered with her chin between her hands and her elbows
deep in the cushions. "I know how much is known. This man — what is his
name? Ramsden? Pouff! Ganesha, here, is far better! Ganesha is from America.
Those fools who went to prepare the American mind for what is coming, because
they were altogether too foolish to be anything but in the way in India, have
been found out, and Ganesha has come like a big bull-buffalo to save the
world by thrusting his clumsy horns into things he does not understand! I
tell you, Athelstan, that however much is known there is much more that is
not known. You would better make terms with me!"
"What you must understand, Princess, is that your plan to overthrow the
West and make the East the world's controlling force, is known by those who
can prevent you," he answered quietly. "You see, I can't go away from here
and tell whoever asks me that you are observing your promise to—"
"No," she interrupted with a ringing merry laugh of triumph. "You speak
truth without knowing it! You can not go away!"
Princess Yasmini's boast was good. But we had come to solve a problem, not
to run away with it, and she looked disconcerted by our rather obvious
willingness to be her prisoners for a while.
"Do you think I can not be cruel?" she asked suddenly.
"I have seen you at your worst, as well as at your best!" King
"You act like a man who has resources. Yet you have none," she answered
slowly, as if reviewing all the situation in her mind. "None knows where you
are — not even Mulji Singh, with whom you left your other clothes
before putting on that uniform the better to impress me! The bag that you and
Ganesha share between you, like two mendicants emerging from the jail, is now
in a room in this palace. You came because you saw that if I should be
arrested there would be insurrection. You said so to Ommony sahib, and his
butler overheard. But not even Ommony knows where you are. He said to you:
'If you can defeat that woman without using violence, you'll stand alone in
the world as the one man who could do it. But if you use violence, though you
kill her, she will defeat you and all the rest of us.' Is not that what your
Friend Ommony said?"
"What kind of terms do you want me to make with you, Princess?" King
"I can make you ruler of all India!" she said. "Another may wear the
baubles, but thou shalt be the true king, even as thy name is! And behind
thee, me, Yasmini, whispering wisdom and laughing to see the politicians
King leaned back and laughed at her.
"Do you really expect me to help you ruin my own countrymen, go back on my
color, creed, education, oath and everything, and—"
"Deluded fools! The East — the East, Athelstan, is waking! Better
make terms with me, and thou shalt live to ride on the arising East as God
rides on the wind and bits and governs it!"
"Very well," he said. "Show me. I'll do nothing blindfold."
"Hah! Thou art not half-conquered yet," she laughed. "And what of Ganesha?
Is this mountain of bones and thews a person to be trusted, or shall we show
him how much stronger than him is a horsehair in a clever woman's
"This man Ramsden is my friend," King said.
"Are you his friend?" she retorted.
"You are going to see the naked heart of India!" she said. "Better to have
your eyes burned out now than see that and be false to it afterward!"
Then, since we failed to order red-hot needles for our eyes, she cried out
once — one clear note that sounded almost exactly as if she had struck
a silver gong. A woman entered like the living echo to it. Yasmini spoke, and
the woman disappeared again.
Below us the river swallowed and gurgled along the palace wall, and we
caught the occasional thumping of a boat-pole. The thumping ceased exactly
underneath us, and a man began singing in the time-hallowed language of
Rajasthan. I think he was looking upward as he sang, for each word reached
"Oh warm and broad the plow land lies, The idle oxen wait! We pray thee,
holy river, rise, Nor glut thy fields too late! The year awakes! The
slumbering seed Swells to its birth! Oh river, heed!"
"Strange time of year for that song, Princess! Is that one of your spies?"
asked King, not too politely.
"One of my friends," she answered. "I told you: India awakes! But
It was growing dark. Two women came and drew the curtains closer. Other
women brought lamps and set them on stools along one wall; others again
brought tapers and lit the candles in the hydra-headed candelabra.
"It is really too light yet," Yasmini grumbled, as if the gods who marshal
in the night had not kept faith with her. But even so, the shadows danced
among India's gods on the wall facing the row of stools.
Then there began wood-wind music, made by musicians out of sight, low and
sweet, suggesting unimaginable mysteries, and one by one through the curtains
opposite there came in silently seven women on bare feet that hardly touched
the carpet; and all the stories about nautch girls, all the travelers' tales
of how Eastern women dance with their arms, not feet, vanished that instant
into the kingdom of lies. This was dancing — art absolute. They no
longer seemed to be flesh and blood women possessed of weight and other
limitations; their footfall was hardly audible, and you could not hear them
breathe at all. They were like living shadows, and they danced the way the
shadows of the branches do on a jungle clearing when a light breeze makes the
It had some sort of mystic meaning no doubt, although I did not understand
it; but what I did understand was that the whole arrangement was designed to
produce a sort of mesmerism in the beholder.
However, school yourself to live alone and think alone for a quarter of a
century or so, meeting people only as man to man instead of like a sheep
among a flock of sheep, and you become immune to that sort of thing.
The Princess Yasmini seemed to realize that neither King nor I were being
drawn into the net of dreaminess that those trained women of hers were
"Watch!" said Yasmini suddenly. And then we saw what very few men have
been privileged to see.
She joined the dance; and you knew then who had taught those women. Theirs
had been after all a mere interpretation: of her vision. Hers was the vision
She was It — the thing itself — no more an
interpretation than anything in nature is. Yasmini became India —
India's heart; and I suppose that if King and I had understood her we would
have been swept into her vortex, as it were, like drops of water into an
She was unrestrained by any need, or even willingness to explain herself.
She was talking the same language that the nodding blossoms and the light and
shadow talk that go chasing each other across the hillsides. And while you
watched you seemed to know all sorts of things — secrets that
disappeared from your mind a moment afterward.
She began singing presently, commencing on the middle F as every sound in
nature does and disregarding conventional limitations just as she did when
dancing. She sang first of the emptiness before the worlds were made. She
sang of the birth of peoples; of the history of peoples.
She sang of India as the mother of all speech, song, race and knowledge;
of truths that every great thinker since the world's beginning has
propounded; and of India as the home of all of them, until, whether you would
or not, at least you seemed to see the undeniable truth of that.
And then, in a weird, wild, melancholy minor key came the story of the
Kali-Yug — the age of darkness creeping over India, condemning
her for her sins. She sang of India under the hoof of ugliness and ignorance
and plague, and yet of a few who kept the old light burning in secret —
of hidden books, and of stuff that men call magic handed down the centuries
from lip to lip in caves and temple cellars and mountain fastnesses, wherever
the mysteries were safe from profane eyes.
And then the key changed again, striking that fundamental middle F that is
the mother-note of all the voices of nature and, as Indians maintain, of the
music of the spheres as well. Music and song and dance became laughter. Doubt
vanished, for there seemed nothing left to doubt, as she began to sing of
India rising at last, again triumphant over darkness, mother of the world and
of all the nations of the world, awake, unconquerable.
Never was another song like that one! Nor was there ever such a climax. As
she finished on a chord of triumph that seemed like a new spirit bursting the
bonds of ancient mystery and sank to the floor among her women, there stood
the Gray Mahatma in their midst, not naked any longer, but clothed from head
to heel in a saffron-colored robe, and without his paste of ashes.
He stood like a statue with folded arms, his yellow eyes blazing and his
look like a lion's; and how he had entered the room I confess I don't know to
this hour, nor does Athelstan King, who is a trained observer of unusual
happenings. Both doors were closed, and I will take oath that neither had
been opened since the women entered.
"Peace!" was his first word, spoken like one in authority, who ordered
peace and dared to do it.
He stood looking for more than a minute at King and me with, I think, just
a flicker of scorn on his thin lips, as if he were wondering whether we were
men enough to face the ordeal before us. Then indefinably, yet quite
perceptibly his mood changed and his appearance with it. He held his right
"Will you not shake hands with me?" he asked smiling.
Now that was a thing that no sanctimonious Brahman would have dreamed of
doing, for fear of being defiled by the touch of a casteless foreigner; so he
was either above or below the caste laws, and it is common knowledge how
those who are below caste cringe and toady. So he evidently reckoned himself
above it, and the Indian who can do that has met and overcome more tyranny
and terrors than the West knows anything about.
I wish I could make exactly clear what happened when I took his
His fingers closed on mine with a grip like marble. There are few men who
are stronger than I am; I can outlift a stage professional; yet I could no
more move his hand or pull mine free than if he had been a bronze image with
my hand set solid in the casting.
"That is for your own good," he said pleasantly, letting go at last. "That
other man knows better, but you might have been so unwise as to try using
"I'm glad you had that experience," said King in a low voice, as I went
back to the window-seat. "Don't let yourself be bewildered by it. There's an
explanation for everything. They know something that we don't, that's
AT a sign from the Gray Mahatma all the women except Yasmini
left the room. Yasmini seemed to be in a strange mood mixed of mischief and
The Mahatma sat down exactly in the middle of the carpet, and his method
was unique. It looked just as if an unseen hand had taken him by the hair and
lowered him gradually, for he crossed his legs and dropped to the floor as
evenly and slowly as one of those freight elevators that disappear beneath
the city side-walks.
He seemed to attach a great deal of importance to his exact position and
glanced repeatedly at the walls as if to make sure that he was not sitting an
inch or two too far to the right or left; however, he had gauged his
measurements exactly at the first attempt and did not move, once he was
"You two sahibs," he began, with a slight emphasis on the word
sahib, as if he wished to call attention to the fact that he was
according us due courtesy, "you two honorable gentlemen," he continued, as if
mere courtesy perhaps were not enough, "have been chosen unknown to
yourselves. For there is but one Chooser, whose choice is never known until
the hour comes. For the chosen there is no road back again. Even if you
should prefer death, your death could not now be of your own choosing; for,
having been chosen, there is no escape from service to the Purpose, and
though you would certainly die if courage failed you, your death would be
more terrible than life, since it would serve the Purpose without benefiting
"You are both honest men," he continued, "for the one has resigned honors
and emoluments in the army for the sake of serving India; the other has
accepted toilsome service under a man who seeks, however mistakenly, to serve
the world. If you were not honest you would never have been chosen. If you
had made no sacrifices of your own free will, you would not have been
Yasmini clasped her hands and laid her chin on them among the cushions.
She was reveling in intellectual enjoyment, as sinfully I daresay as some
folk revel in more material delights. The Mahatma took no notice of her, but
"You have heard of the Kali-Yug, the age of darkness. It is at an
end. The nations presently begin to beat swords into plowshares because the
time has come. But there is yet much else to do, and the eyes of those who
have lived so long in darkness are but blinded for the present by the light,
so that guides are needed, who can see. You two shall see — a
It was becoming intolerably hot in the room with the curtains drawn and
all those lights burning, but I seemed to be the only one who minded it. The
candles in the chandelier were kept from collapsing by metal sheaths, but the
very flames seemed to feel the heat and to flicker like living things that
"Corn is corn and grass is grass," said the Mahatma, "and neither one can
change the other. Yet the seed of grass that is selected can improve all
grass, as they understand who strive with problems of the field. Therefore ye
two, who have been chosen, shall be sent as the seeds of grass to the United
States to carry on the work that no Indian can properly accomplish. Corn to
corn, grass to grass. That is your destiny."
He paused, as if waiting for the sand to run out of an hour-glass. There
was no hour-glass, but the suggestion was there just the same.
"Nevertheless," he went on presently, "there are some who fail their
destiny, even as some chosen seeds refuse to sprout. You will need besides
your honesty such courage as is committed to few.
"Once on a time before the Kali-Yug began, when the Aryans, of whom
you people are descendants, lived in this ancient motherland, the whole of
all knowledge was the heritage of every man, and what to-day are called
miracles were understood as natural working of pure law. It was nothing in
those days for a man to walk through fire unscathed, for there was very
little difference between the gods and men, and men knew themselves for
masters of the universe, subject only to Parabrahm.
"Nevertheless, the sons of men grew blind, mistaking the shadow for the
substance. And because the least error when extended to infinity produces
chaos, the whole world became chaos, full of nothing but rivalries, sickness,
"Meanwhile, the sons of men, ever seeking the light they lost, have spread
around the earth, ever mistaking the shadow for the substance, until they
have imitated the very thunder and lightning, calling them cannon; they have
imitated all the forces of the universe and called them steam, gasoline,
electricity, chemistry and what not, so that now they fly by machinery, who
once could fly without effort and without wings.
"And now they grow deathly weary, not understanding why. Now they hold
councils, one nation with another, seeking to substitute a lesser evil for
"Once in every hundred years men have been sent forth to prove by public
demonstration that there is a greater science than all that are called
sciences. None knew when the end of the Kali-Yug might be, and it was
thought that if men saw things they could not explain, perhaps they would
turn and seek the true mastery of the universe. But what happened? You, who
are from America; is there one village in all America where men do not speak
of Indians as fakirs and mock-magicians? For that there are two reasons. One
is that there are multitudes of Indians who are thieves and liars, who know
nothing and seek to conceal their ignorance beneath a cloak of deceit and
trickery. The other is, that men are so deep in delusion, that when they do
see the unexplainable they seek to explain it away. Whereas the truth is that
there are natural laws which, if understood by all, would at once make all
men masters of the universe.
"I will give you an example. To-day they are using wireless telephones,
who twenty years ago would have mocked whoever had suggested such a thing.
Yet it is common knowledge that forty years ago, for instance, when Roberts
the British general led an army into Afghanistan in wintertime and fought a
battle at Kandahar, the news of his victory was known in Bombay, a thousand
miles away, as soon as it had happened, whereas the Government, possessing
semaphores and the telegraph, had to wait many days for the news.* How did
that occur? Can you or any one explain it?
"If I were to go forth and tell how it happened, the men who profit by the
telegraphs and the deep-sea cables, would desire to kill me.
"There is only one country in the world where such things can be
successfully explained, and that is India; but not even in India until India
is free. When the millions of India once grasp the fact of freedom, they will
forget superstition and understand. Then they will claim their powers and use
them. Then the world will see, and wonder. And presently the world, too, will
"Therefore, India must be free. These three hundred and fifty million
people who speak one hundred and forty-seven languages must be set free to
work out their own destiny.
"But there is only one way of doing that. The world, and India with it, is
held in the grip of delusion. And what is delusion? Nothing but opinions.
Therefore it is opinions that hold India in subjection, and opinions must be
changed. A beginning must be made where opinions are least hidebound and are
therefore easiest to change. That means America.
"Therefore you two sahibs are chosen — one who knows and
loves India; one who knows and loves America. The duty laid on you is
absolute. There can be no flinching from it. You are to go to America and
convince Americans that India should be free to work out her own destiny.
"Therefore follow, and see what you shall see."
He rose, exactly as he had sat down, without apparent muscular effort. It
was as if a hand had taken him by the scalp and lifted him, except that I
noticed his feet were pressed so hard against the floor that the blood left
them, so that I think the secret of the trick was perfect muscular control,
although how to attain that is another matter.
The Princess Yasmini made no offer to come with us, but lounged among the
cushions reveling in mischievous enjoyment. Whatever the Gray Mahatma's real
motive, there was no possible doubt about hers; she was looking forward to a
tangible, material profit.
The Gray Mahatma led the way through the door by which we had entered,
stalking along in his saffron robe without the slightest effort to seem
dignified or solemn.
"Keep your wits about you," King whispered; and then again, presently:
"Don't be fooled into thinking that anything you see is supernatural.
Remember that whatever you see is simply the result of something that they
know and that we don't. Keep your hair on! We're going to see some wonderful
stuff or I'm a Dutchman."
We passed down the long corridor outside Yasmini's room, but instead of
continuing straight forward, the Gray Mahatma found an opening behind a
curtain in a wall whose thickness could be only guessed. Inside the wall was
a stairway six feet wide that descended to an echoing, unfurnished hall below
after making two turns inside solid masonry.
The lower hall was dark, but he found his way without difficulty, picking
up a lantern from a corner on his way and then opening a door that gave,
underneath the outer marble stairway, on to the court where the pool and the
flowering shrubs were. The lantern was not lighted when he picked it up. I
did not see how he lighted it. It was an ordinary oil lantern, apparently,
with a wire handle to carry it by, and after he had carried it for half a
minute it seemed to burn brightly of its own accord. I called King's
attention to it.
"I've seen that done before," he answered, but he did not say whether or
not he understood the trick of it.
Ismail came running to meet us the instant we showed ourselves, but
stopped when he saw the Mahatma and, kneeling, laid the palms of both hands
on his forehead on the stone flags. That was a strange thing for a Moslem to
do — especially toward a Hindu — but the Mahatma took not the
slightest notice of him and walked straight past as if he had not been there.
He could hear King's footsteps and mine behind him, of course, and did not
need to look back, but there was something almost comical in the way he
seemed to ignore our existence and go striding along alone as if on business
bent. He acted as little like a priest or a fakir or a fanatic as any man I
have ever seen, and no picture-gallery curator or theater usher ever did the
honors of the show with less attention to his own importance.
He led the way through the same bronze gate that we had entered by and
never paused or glanced behind him until he came to the cage where the old
black panther snarled behind the bars; and then a remarkable thing
At first the panther began running backward and forward, as the caged
brutes usually do when they think they are going to be fed; for all his age
he looked as full of fight as a newly caught young one, and his long yellow
fangs flashed from under the curled lip — until the Mahatma spoke to
him. He only said one word that I could hear, and I could not catch what the
word was; but instantly the black brute slunk away to the corner of its cage
farthest from the iron door, and at that the Mahatma opened the door without
using any key that I detected. The padlock may have been a trick one, but I
know this; — it came away in his hands the moment he touched it.
Then at last he took notice of King and me again. He stood aside, and
smiled, and motioned to us with his hand to enter the cage ahead of him. I
have been several sorts of rash idiot in my time, and I daresay that King has
too, for most of us have been young once; but I have also hunted panthers,
and so has King, and to walk unarmed or even with weapons — into a
black panther's cage is something that calls, I should say, for inexperience.
The more you know about panthers the less likely you are to do it. It was
almost pitch-dark; you could see the brute's yellow eyes gleaming, but no
other part of him now, because he matched the shadows perfectly; but, being a
cat, he could see us, and the odds against a man who should walk into that
cage were, as a rough guess, ten trillion to one.
"Fear is the presence of death, and death is delusion. Follow me then,"
said the Mahatma.
He walked straight in, keeping the lighted lantern on the side of him
farthest from the panther, whose claws I could hear scratching on the stone
"Keep that light toward him for God's sake!" I urged, having myself had to
use a lantern more than a score of times for protection at night against the
"Nay, it troubles his eyes. For God's sake I will hide it from him," the
Mahatma answered. "We must not wait here."
"Come on," said King, and strode in through the open door. So I went in
too, because I did not care to let King see me hesitate. Curiosity had
vanished. I was simply in a blue funk, and rather angry as well at the
absurdity of what we were doing.
The Gray Mahatma turned and shut the gate behind me, taking no notice at
all of the black brute that crouched in the other corner, grumbling and
moaning rather than growling.
Have you ever seen a panther spit and spring when a keeper shoved it out
of the way with the cleaning rake? There is no beast in the world with whom
it is more dangerous to play tricks. Yet in that dark corner, with the
lantern held purposely so that it should not dazzle the panther's eyes, the
Gray Mahatma stirred the beast with his toe and drove him away as carelessly
and incautiously as you might shove your favorite dog aside! The panther
crowded itself against the side of the cage and slunk away behind us —
to the front of the cage that is to say, close by the padlocked gate —
where he crouched again and moaned.
The dark, rear end of the cage was all masonry and formed part of the
building behind it. In the right-hand corner, almost invisible from outside,
was a narrow door of thick teak that opened very readily when the Mahatma
fumbled with it although I saw no lock, hasp or keyhole on the side toward
us. We followed him through into a stone vault.
"And now there is need to be careful," he said, his voice booming and
echoing along unseen corridors. "For though those here, who can harm you if
they will, are without evil intention, nevertheless injury begets desire to
injure. And do either of you know how to make acceptable explanations to a
she-cobra whose young have been trodden on? Therefore walk with care,
observing the lantern light and remembering that as long as you injure none,
none will injure you."
At that he turned on his heel abruptly and walked forward, swinging the
lantern so that its light swept to and fro. We were walking through the heart
of masonry whose blocks were nearly black with age; there was a smell of
ancient sepulchers, and in places the walls were damp enough to be green and
slippery. Presently we came to the top of a flight of stone steps, each step
being made of one enormous block and worn smooth by the sandaled traffic of
centuries. It grew damper as we descended, and those great blocks were tricky
things for a man in boots to walk on; yet the Gray Mahatma, swinging his
lantern several steps below us, kept calling back:
"Have a care! Have a care! He who falls can do as much injury as he who
jumps! Shall the injured inquire into reasons?"
We descended forty or fifty steps and I, walking last, had just reached
the bottom, when something dashed between my feet, and another something
flicked like a whip-lash after it. As the Mahatma swung the lantern I just
caught sight of an enormous rat closely pursued by a six-foot snake, and
after that we might as well have been in hell for all the difference it would
have made to me.
I don't know how long that tunnel was, but I do know I am not going back
there to measure it. It was nearly as big as the New York Subway, only built
of huge stone blocks instead of concrete. It seemed to be an inferno, in
which cobras hunted rats perpetually; but we saw one swarm of fiery-eyed rats
eating a dead snake.
There were baby cobras by the hundred — savage, six-inch things, and
even smaller, that knew as much of evil, and could slay as surely, as the
full-grown mother-snake that raised her hood and hissed as we passed.
The snakes seemed afraid of the Mahatma, and yet not afraid of him —
much more careful to keep out from under his feet than ours, yet taking no
other apparent notice of him, whereas hundreds of them raised their hoods and
hissed at us. And though nothing touched him, at least fifty times rats and
snakes raced over King's feet and mine, or slipped between our legs.
"This fellow has some use for us," King said over his shoulder. "He'll
neither be killed himself, nor let us be if he can help it. This is no new
trick. Lots of 'em can manage snakes."
The Gray Mahatma, twenty yards ahead, heard every word of that. He stopped
and let us come quite close up to him.
"Have you seen this?" he asked.
There was a cobra swinging its head about two and a half feet off the
ground within a yard of him. He passed the lantern to me, and holding out
both hands coaxed the venomous thing to come to him as you or I might coax a
stray dog. It obeyed. It laid its head on his hands, lowered its hood, and
climbed until, within six inches of his face, its head rested on his left
"Would you like to try that?" he asked. "You can do it if you wish."
We did not wish, and while we stood there the infernal reptiles were
swarming all around us, rising knee-high and swaying, with their forked
tongues flashing in and out, but showing no inclination to use their fangs,
although many of them raised their hoods. At that moment there were certainly
fifty of the filthy things close enough to strike; and the bite of any one of
them would have meant certain death within fifteen minutes.
However, they did not bite. The Gray Mahatma set down very gently the
snake that had done his bidding, and then shooed the rest away; they backed
off like a flock of foolish geese, hissing and swaying pretty much as geese
"Come!" he boomed. "Cobras are foolish people, and folly is infectious.
WE came soon to another flight of steps made of gigantic
blocks of stone older than history, and groping our way up those we followed
the Gray Mahatma to a gallery at the top, on the other side of which was a
sheer drop and the smell of stagnant water. I could hear something sluggish
that moved in the water, and somewhere in the distance was a turning around
which light found its way so dimly that it hardly looked like light at all,
but more like filmy mist. A heavy monster splashed somewhere beneath us and
the Mahatma raised the lantern to peer into our faces.
"Those are muggers (alligators). You may see them now if you would
rather. The same as with the snakes, the rule is you must do them no
He looked at us keenly, as if making sure that we really were not enjoying
ourselves, and then leaned his weight against an iron door in a corner. It
swung open, and we followed him through into a pitch-dark chamber of some
kind. But the door we came in by had hardly slammed behind us when a bright
light broke through a square hole in the ceiling and displayed a flight of
rock-hewn steps. Some one overhead had removed a stone plug from the
The Mahatma motioned to King to go first, but as King refused he led the
way again, going through the square hole overhead as handily as any seaman
swinging himself into the cross-trees. King followed him and I stood on the
top step with head and shoulders through the opening surveying the prospect
before scrambling up after him.
I was looking between King's legs. The light came from three large wood-
fires placed over at the left end of a rectangular chamber hewn out of solid
rock. The chamber was at least a hundred feet long and thirty wide; its roof
was lost in smoke, but seemed to be irregular, as if the walls of a natural
cavern had been shaped by masons who left the high roof as they found it.
A very nearly naked man with a long beard, hair over his shoulders, and
the general air of being some one in authority, was walking about with
nothing in his hand except a seven-jointed bamboo cane. He was a very old
man, but of magnificent physique and ribbed up like a race-horse in training.
His principal business seemed to be the supervision of several absolutely
naked individuals, who carried in wood through a dark gap in the wall and
piled it on the three fires at the farther end with almost ludicrous
And between the three fires, not spitted and not bound but absolutely
motionless, there sat a human being, so dried out that not even that fierce
heat could wring a drop of sweat from him, yet living, for you could see him
breathe and the firelight shone on his living, yet unwinking eyes. Every
draft of air that he drew into his lungs must have scorched him. Every single
hair had disappeared from his body. And while we watched they came and fed
But he was only one of many, all undergoing torture in its most hideous
and useless forms, and all as free as he was to deliver themselves if they
saw fit. The least offensive was a man within six feet of me who sat on a
conical stone no bigger than a coconut; that small stone was resting on top
of a cone of rock about a yard high, in such fashion that it rocked at the
slightest change of balance; the man's legs were crossed, however, exactly as
if he were squatting on the floor — although they actually rested on
nothing; and his arms had been crossed behind his back for so long, and held
so steadily, that the fingernails of the right hand had grown through the
left arm biceps, and vice versa. He, too, was fed with drops of water and
about a dozen grains of rice — every second day, as the Mahatma told us
Space was at a premium in that gruesome madhouse. Close beside the fellow
on the rocking stone there hung two ropes from rings in the roof. There were
iron hooks on their lower ends, and these were passed through the back
muscles of another naked man, who kept himself swinging by touching the floor
with one toe. The muscles were so drawn by his weight that they formed loops
several inches long and had turned to dry gristle; the strain had had some
effect on one of his legs, for it was curled up under him and apparently
useless, but the other, with which he toed the floor to swing himself, was
apparently all right. His hands were folded over his breast, and his beard
and hair hung like seaweed.
Near him again there was an arrangement like a medieval rack, only that
instead of having a wheel or a lever the cords were drawn by heavy weights. A
man lay on it with arms and legs stretched out toward its corners so tightly
that his body did not touch the underlying strut; and he had been so long in
that position that his hands and feet were dead from the pressure of the
cords, and his limbs were stretched several inches beyond their normal
length. In proof that his torture, too, was voluntary, he was balancing a
round stone on his solar plexus that could have been much more easily dumped
than kept in place.
The priest stared questioningly at the Gray Mahatma, glancing from him to
us and back again.
The Gray Mahatma beckoned King and me and led the way between the
shuddersome, self-immolated, twisted wrecks of humanity to an opening in the
far wall, through which we passed into another chamber carved out of the
rock, not so large as the first and only lighted by a charcoal brazier that
gave off as much fumes as flame. The fitful, bluish light fell in a stone
ledge, in a niche like a sepulcher, carved in one wall, and on that ledge a
man lay who had every muscle of his body pierced with thorns; his tongue
protruded between his teeth, and was held there by a thorn thrust through
The Gray Mahatma stood and looked at him, and smiled.
"Just a presumptuous fool!" he said pleasantly. "This was the most
presumptuous of them all, but they all suffer for the same offense. Take
warning! They could walk away if they cared to. They are here of what they
think is their free will. They are moths who sought the flame, some from
curiosity, some from desire, some craving adoration for themselves, all for
one false reason or another. This fate might be yours — so take
"There is not one of these who was not warned," he said quietly. "They
were cautioned not to inquire into matters too deep for them. They were here
to be taught; but that little knowledge that is such a dangerous thing
tempted them too swiftly forward beyond their depth, so that now — you
see them. They seek to get rid of material bodies and to satisfy themselves
that death is a delusion. You revolt at the sight of these self-tortured
fools; yet I tell you that, should you commit the same offense, you would
behave as they, even as the moth that goes too near the flame. Take care lest
curiosity overwhelm you."
"All right, lead along," King answered rather testily. "I've seen worse
than this a hundred times. I've seen the women."
The Mahatma nodded gravely.
"But not even I may lead you forward clothed as you are," he said. "I am
about to reveal such mysteries as set presumptuous fools to seeking
perfection by a too short route. Even I would be slain, if I tried to
introduce you in that garb. Undress."
He set us the example; but as we were not qualified by years of arduously
won sanctity to stand stark naked in the presence he conceded us a clout
apiece torn from a filthy length of calico that some one had tossed in a
corner. And he tore another piece of filthy red cotton cloth in halves, and
divided it between us to twist around our heads. King laughed at me.
"You look like a fine, fat Bengali," he said.
The Mahatma called to one of the servitors to bring ashes in a brass bowl.
We watched him rake them out from under the fires, shake water on them, and
mix them into paste as casually as if the business were part of his regular
routine. The Mahatma took the bowl from him and plastered King and me
liberally with the stuff, making King look like a scabrous fanatic, and I
don't doubt I looked worse, having more acreage of anatomy. Last of all he
put some on himself, but only here and there, as if his sanctity only
demanded a little piercing out. Then he raised a flagstone in one corner of
the chamber that swung easily on pivots set in sockets in the masonry, and
led the way again.
We were evidently in a system of caves that had been quarried into shape
centuries before the Christian era. They seemed originally to have been
bubbles and blow-holes in volcanic rock, and to have been connected together
by piercing the walls between them. There was certainly no intelligible plan
attached to their arrangement, for we went first up, then down, then
sideways, losing all sense of elevation and direction. But we passed through
at least three score of those connected blow-holes, and the air in some of
the higher ones was so foul that breathing it made you weak at the knees.
Nevertheless, in every single one there was an anchorite of some kind,
engaged in painful meditation. In each cave was an infinitesimal lamp made of
baked clay and fed with vegetable oil that provided more smoke than flame,
and the walls and ceiling were deep with the soot of centuries.
Following the Gray Mahatma's example King and I took handfuls of the soot
and smeared it on our breasts, stomachs and faces, to mingle with the ashes
in a mask of holiness. By the time we had finished that there was not much
chance of any one mistaking us for anything but two half-crazed aspirants for
I could not possibly have drawn a tracing of our own course, for it was
rank bewildering; but we emerged at last under the stars by the side of a
great stone tank. It might have been a bathing pool, for along each side
steps disappeared into the water. We could dimly distinguish one end on our
right hand with a row of great graven gods all reflected in the water; but
the other end vanished through a black cave-mouth. It was about a hundred and
twenty feet wide from bank to bank, and between us and the steps that faced
us on the far side, in among the quivering star-reflections, I could count
the snouts of eighteen alligators.
"Which way now?" King asked him a shade suspiciously.
"Forward," he answered, with a note of surprise.
But if the Mahatma supposed that a coat of soot and ashes provided either
King or me with a satisfactory reason for hobnobbing with alligators in their
home pool, he was emphatically mistaken. We objected simultaneously,
unanimously, and right out loud in meeting.
"Suit yourself," said I. "This suits me here."
"Go forward if you like," said King, "we'll wait for you."
The Gray Mahatma turned and eyed us solemnly but not unkindly.
"If I should leave you here," he said, "a much worse fate would overtake
you than any that you anticipate, for your minds are not advanced enough to
imagine the horrors that assail all those who lack courage. This is the
testing place for aspirants, and more win their way across it than you might
suppose, impudence of ambition adding skill to recklessness. All must make
the attempt, alone and at night, who seek the inner shrines of Knowledge, and
those creatures in the tank have no other food than is thus provided.
"Those whose courage failed them are now such fakirs as we have seen, who
now seek to rid themselves of materiality, which is the cause of fear, by
ridding themselves of their fleshy envelope. Follow me then."
He stepped down into the water, and at once it became evident that to all
intents and purposes there were two tanks, the division between them lying
about eighteen inches under water. But the division was neither straight nor
exactly level. It zig-zagged this and that way like the key-track in a maze,
and was more beset with slippery pitfalls than a mussel-shoal at low
King followed the Mahatma in, and I came last, so I had the benefit of two
pilots, as well as the important task of holding King whenever he groped his
way forward with one foot. For the Mahatma went a great deal faster than we
cared to follow, so that although he had shown us the way we were still
doubtful of our footing. At intervals he would pause and turn and look at us,
and every time he did that those long loathsome snouts would ripple toward
him like spokes of a wheel, but he took no more notice of them than if they
had been water-rats. They seemed more interested in him than in us.
There were seven sharp turns in that underwater causeway, and the edges of
each turn were slippery slopes, up which an alligator certainly could climb,
but that afforded not the least chance to a man whose foot once stepped too
far and slid. And not only were there unexpected turns at different
intervals, but there were gaps in the causeway of a yard or so in at least a
dozen places, and the edges of those gaps were smooth and rounded, as if
purposely designed to dump all wayfarers into the very jaws of the waiting
reptiles. It was in just such places as that that they began to gather and
wait patiently, with their awful yellow eyes just noticeable in the
King and I were standing on one such rounded guessing-place.
The Mahatma, twenty yards away, was taking his time about turning to give
us directions, and one great fifteen foot brute had raised itself on the
causeway behind us and was snapping its paws together like a pair of vicious
"Nero and Caligula were Christian gentlemen compared to you!" I called out
to the Mahatma.
"You are fortunate," he boomed back. "You have starlight and a guide.
Those who are not chosen have to find their way — or fail — alone
under a cloudy sky. There is none to hold them while they grope; there
is none to care whether they succeed or not, save only the mugger that
desires a meal. Nevertheless, there are some of them who succeed, so how
should you fail? Take a step to the left now — a long one, each holding
the other, then another to the left — then to the right again."
"Curse you!" I shouted back, staring over King's shoulder. "There's a
mugger's head between us and the next stepping-stone!"
"Nay!" he answered. "That is the stepping-stone."
I could have sworn that he was lying, but King set his foot on it and in a
moment more we were working our way cautiously along the causeway again,
making for the next sharp corner where the Mahatma had been standing to give
us the direction. But he never waited for us to catch up with him. I think he
suspected that in panic we might clutch him and offer violence, and he always
moved on as we approached, leaving us to grope our way in agonies of
The going did not become easier as we progressed. When the Gray Mahatma
reached the steps on the far side and stood, out of the water waiting for us,
all the monsters that had watched his progress came and joined our party; and
now, instead of keeping to the water, two of them climbed up on the causeway,
so that there was one of the creatures behind us and two in front.
"Call off your cousins and your uncles and your aunts!" I shouted, bearing
in mind the Hindu creed that consigns the souls of unrighteous men to the
bodies of animals in retribution for their sins.
The Gray Mahatma picked up a short pole from the embankment, and returned
into the water with it, not striking out right and left as any
ordinary-minded person would have done, but shoving the brutes away gently
one by one, as if they were logs or small boats. And even so, they followed
us so closely that they climbed the steps abreast of us.
But I'm willing to bet that there is not an alligator living that can
catch me once my feet are set on hard ground, and I can say the same for
King; we danced up those steps together like a pair of fauns emerging from a
Then the Gray Mahatma came and peered into our faces, and asked an
"Do you feel proud?" he asked, looking keenly from one to the other of us.
"Because," he went on to explain, "you have now crossed the Pool of Terrors,
and they are not so many who accomplish that. The muggers are well
fed. And those who reach to this side are usually proud, believing they now
have the secret key to the attainment of all Knowledge. You are going to see
now what becomes of the proud ones."
The Mahatma led us forward toward a long, dark shadow that transformed
itself into a temple wall as we drew closer, and in a moment we were once
more groping our way downward amid prehistoric foundation stones, with bats
flitting past us and a horrible feeling possessing me, at least, that the
worst was yet to come.
The hunch proved accurate. We came into an enormous crypt that evidently
underlay a temple. Great pillars of natural rock, practically square and
twenty feet thick, supported the roof, which was partly of natural rock and
partly of jointed masonry. There was nothing in the crypt itself, except one
old gray-beard, who sat on a mat by a candle, reading a roll of manuscript;
and he did not trouble to look up — did not take the slightest notice
But around the crypt there were more cells than I could count off-hand.
Some were dark. There were lights burning in the others. Each had an iron
door with a few holes in it, and a small square window, unglazed and
unbarred, cut in the natural rock. Enough light came through some of those
square holes to suffuse the whole crypt dimly.
"None but an aspirant has ever entered here," said the Gray Mahatma. "Even
when India was conquered, no enemy penetrated this place. You stand on
He turned to the left and opened an iron cell door by simply pushing it;
there did not seem to be any lock. He did not announce himself, but walked
straight in, and we followed him. The cell was about ten feet by twelve, with
a stone ledge wide enough to sleep on running along one side, and lighted by
an oil lamp that hung by chains from the hewn roof. There were three bearded,
middle-aged men, almost naked, squatting on one mat facing the stone ledge,
one of whom held an ancient manuscript that all three were consulting; and on
the stone ledge sat what once had been a man before those devils caught
The three looked up at the Gray Mahatma curiously, but did not challenge.
I suppose his nakedness was his passport. They eyed King and me with a
butcher's-eye appraisal, nodded, and resumed their consultation of the hand-
written roll. The characters on it looked like Sanskrit.
The Gray Mahatma faced the creature on the stone ledge, and spoke to King
and me in English.
"That," he said, "is one of those who crossed the Pool of Terrors and
became insane with pride. Consider him. He entered here demanding knowledge,
having only the desire and not the honesty. But since there is no way
backward and even failure must subserve the universal cause, he was given
knowledge and it made him what you see. Now these, who know a little and
would learn more, make use of him as a subject for experiments.
"That thing, who was once a man, can imagine himself a bird, or a fish, or
an animal — or even an insensate graven stone — at their command.
When he is no more fit to be studied he will imagine himself to be a
mugger, and will hurry into the tank with the other reptiles, and that
will be the end of him. Come."
I felt like going mad that minute. I sat down on the rock floor and held
my head to make sure that I still had it. I wanted to think of something that
would give me back my grip on sanity and the good, clean concrete world
outside; I don't think I could have done it if King had not seen and applied
the solution. He kicked me in the ribs as hard as he could with his naked
foot, and, that failing, used his fist.
"Get up!" he said. "Hit me, if you want to!"
Then he turned to the Mahatma.
"Confound you! Take us out of this!"
"Peace! Peace!" said the Gray Mahatma. "You are chosen. You are needed for
another purpose. No harm shall come to either of you. There is one more cell
that you must enter."
"No!" said I, and I met his eye squarely. "I've seen my fill of these
sights. Lead the way out!"
He did not appear in the least afraid of me; merely curious, as if he were
viewing an experiment. I made up my mind on the instant to experiment on my
own account, and swung my fist back for a full-powered smash at him. I let
go, too. But the blow fell on King, who stepped between us, and knocked
nearly all the wind out of him.
"None o' that!" he gasped. "Let's see this through."
The Gray Mahatma patted him gently on the shoulder.
"Good!" he said. "Very good. You did well!"
THE Gray Mahatma led the way toward one of the great square
pillars that supported a portion of the roof.
In that pillar there was an opening, about six feet high and barely wide
enough for a man of my build to squeeze himself through, but once inside it
there was ample space and a stairway, hewn in the stone, wound upward. Still
swinging the lantern he had brought with him from Yasmini's palace the
Mahatma led the way up that, and we followed, I last as usual.
We emerged through a wooden door into a temple, whose walls were almost
entirely hidden by enormous images of India's gods. There were no
The resulting gloom was punctuated by dots of yellow light that came from
hanging brass lamps, whose smoke in the course of centuries had covered
everything with soot that it was nobody's business to remove. So it looked
like a coal-black pantheon, and in the darkness you could hardly see the
forms of long-robed men who were mumbling through some sort of ceremony.
"Those," said the Gray Mahatma, "are priests. They receive payment to pray
for people who may not enter lest their sinfulness defile the sanctuary."
There was only one consideration that prevented me from looking for a door
behind a carved stone screen placed at the end wall screen and bidding the
Mahatma a discourteous farewell, and that was the prospect of walking through
the streets with nothing on but a dish-rag and a small red turban.
However, the Gray Mahatma, as naked as the day he was born, led the way to
the screen, opened a hinged door in it and beckoned us through; and we
emerged, instead of into the street as I expected, into a marvelous courtyard
bathed in moonlight, for the moon was just appearing over the roof of what
looked like another temple at the rear.
All around the courtyard was a portico, supported by pillars of most
wonderful workmanship; and the four walls within the portico were subdivided
into open compartments, in each of which was the image of a different god. In
front of each image hung a lighted lamp, whose rays were reflected in the
idol's jeweled eyes; but the only people visible were three or four sleepy
looking attendants in turbans and cotton loin-cloths, who sat up and stared
at us without making any other sign of recognition.
In the very center of the courtyard was a big, square platform built of
stone, with a roof like a canopy supported on carved pillars similar to those
that supported the portico, which is to say that each one was different, and
yet all were so alike as to blend into architectural harmony —
repetition without monotony. The Gray Mahatma led the way up steps on to the
platform, and waited for us at a square opening in the midst of its floor,
beside which lay a stone that obviously fitted the hole exactly. There were
no rings to lift the stone by from the outside, but there were holes drilled
through it from side to side through which iron bolts could be passed from
Down that hole we went in single file again, the Gray Mahatma leading,
treading an oval stairway interminably until I daresay we had descended more
than a hundred feet. The air was warm, but breathable and there seemed to be
plenty of it, as if some efficient means of artificial ventilation had been
provided; nevertheless, it was nothing else than a cavern that we were
exploring, and though there were traces of chisel and adze work on the walls,
the only masonry was the steps.
We came to the bottom at last in an egg-shaped cave, in the center of
which stood a rock, roughly hewn four-square; and on that rock, exactly in
the middle, was a lingam of black polished marble, illuminated by a brass
lamp hanging overhead. The Mahatma eyed it curiously:
"That," he said, "is the last symbol of ignorance. The remainder is
There were doors on every side of that egg-shaped cave, each set cunningly
into a natural fold of rock, so that they seemed to have been inset when it
was molten, in the way that nuts are set into chocolate — pushed into
place by a pair of titanic thumbs. And at last we seemed to have reached a
place where the Gray Mahatma might not enter uninvited, for he selected one
of the doors after a moment's thought and knocked.
We stood there for possibly ten minutes, without an answer, the Mahatma
seeming satisfied with his own meditation, and we not caring to talk lest he
should overhear us.
At last the door opened, not cautiously, but suddenly and wide, and a man
stood square in it who filled it up from frame to frame — a big-eyed,
muscular individual in loin-cloth and turban, who looked too proud to assert
his pride. He stood with arms folded and a smile on his firm mouth; and the
impression he conveyed was that of a master-craftsman, whose skill was his
life, and whose craft was all he cared about.
He eyed the Mahatma without respect or flinching, and said nothing.
Have you ever watched two wild animals meet, stand looking at each other,
and suddenly go off together without a sign of an explanation? That was what
happened. The man in the doorway presently turned his back and led the way
The passage we entered was just exactly wide enough for me to pass along
with elbows touching either wall. It was high; there was plenty of air in it;
it was as scrupulously clean as a hospital ward. On either hand there were
narrow wooden doors, spaced about twenty feet apart, every one of them
closed; there were no bolts on the outside of the doors, and no keyholes, but
I could not move them by shoving against them as I passed.
The extraordinary circumstance was the light. The whole passage was bathed
in light, yet I could not detect where it came from. It was not dazzling like
electricity. No one place seemed brighter than another, and there were no
The end of the passage forked at a perfect right angle, and there were
doors at the end of each arm of the fork. Our guide turned to the right. He,
King and the Mahatma passed through a door that seemed to open at the
slightest touch, and the instant the Mahatma's back had passed the door-frame
I found myself in darkness.
I had hung back a little, trying to make shadows with my hands to discover
the direction of the light; and the strange part was that I could see bright
light in front of me through the open door, but none of it came out into the
It was intuition that caused me to pause at the threshold before following
the others through. Something about the suddenness with which the light had
ceased in the passage the moment the Mahatma's back was past the door, added
to curiosity, made me stop and consider that plane where the light left off.
Having no other instrument available, I took off my turban and flapped it to
and fro, to see whether I could produce any effect on that astonishing
dividing line, and for about the ten thousandth time in a somewhat strenuous
career it was intuition and curiosity that saved me.
The instant the end of the turban touched the plane between light and
darkness it caught fire; or rather, I should say fire caught it, and the fire
was so intense and swift that it burned off that part of the turban without
damaging the rest. In other words, there was a plane of unimaginably active
heat between me and the rest of the party — of such extraordinary heat
that it functioned only on that plane (for I could not feel it with my hand
from an inch away); and I being in pitch darkness while they were in golden
light, the others could not see me.
They could hear, however, and I called to King. I told him what happened,
and then showed him, by throwing what was left of the turban toward him. It
got exactly as far as the plane between light and darkness, and then vanished
in a silent flash so swiftly and completely as to leave no visible charred
I could see all three men standing in line facing in my direction, hardly
ten feet away, and it was difficult to remember that they could not see me at
all — or at any rate that King could not; the others may have had some
trained sixth sense that made it possible.
"Come forward!" said the Gray Mahatma. "We three came by. Why should it
King sized up the situation instantly. If they intended to kill me and
keep him alive, that would not be with his permission or connivance, and he
stepped forward suddenly toward me.
"Stop!" commanded the Mahatma, showing the first trace of excitement that
he had yet betrayed, but King kept on, and I suppose that the man who was
acting showman did something, because King crossed the line without anything
happening and then stood with one foot on each side of the threshold while I
"There are two of us in this!" he said to the Gray Mahatma then. "You
can't kill one and take the other."
We were in a chamber roughly fifty feet square, whose irregular corners
were proof enough that it had been originally another of those huge
blow-holes in volcanic stone; the roof, too, had been left rough, but the
greater part of the side-walls had been finished off smooth with the chisel,
There was a big, rectangular rock exactly in the middle of the room,
shaped like a table or an altar, and polished until it shone. I decided to
sit down on it — whereat the Mahatma ceased to ignore me.
"Fool!" he barked. "Keep off that!"
I tore a piece off the rag I was wearing for a loin-cloth and tossed it on
the polished surface of the stone. It vanished instantly and left no trace;
it did not even leave a mark on the stone, and the burning was so swift and
complete that there was no smell.
"Thanks!" I said. "But why your sudden anxiety on my account?"
He turned to King again.
"You have seen the camera obscura that shows in darkness the
scenery near at hand, provided the sun is shining? The camera obscura
is a feeble imitation of the true idea. There are no limits to the vision of
him who understands true science. What city do you wish to see?"
"Benares," King answered.
Suddenly we were in darkness. Equally suddenly the whole top surface of
the stone table became bathed in light of a different quality — light
like daylight, that perhaps came upward from the stone, but if so came only a
little way. To me it looked much more as if it began suddenly in mid-air and
descended toward the surface of the stone.
And there all at once, as clearly as if we saw it on the focusing screen
of a gigantic camera, lay Benares spread before us, with all its color, its
sacred cattle in the streets, its crowds bathing in the Ganges, temples,
domes, trees, movement — almost the smell of Benares was there, for the
suggestion was all-inclusive.
"But why is it daylight in Benares while it's somewhere near midnight
here?" King demanded.
That instant the sunshine in Benares ceased and the moon and stars came
out. The glow of lamps shone forth from the temple courtyards, and down by
the river ghats were the lurid crimson flame and smoke where they cremated
dead Hindus. It was far more perfect than a motion picture. Allowing for
scale it looked actually real.
Suddenly the chamber was all suffused in golden light once more and the
picture on the granite table vanished.
"Name another city," said the Gray Mahatma.
"London," King answered.
The light went out, and there sure enough was London — first the
Strand, crowded with motor-busses; then Ludgate Hill and St. Paul's; then the
Royal Exchange and Bank of England; then London Bridge and the Tower Bridge
and a panorama of the Thames.
"Are you satisfied?" the Gray Mahatma asked, and once again the cavern was
flooded with that peculiarly restful golden light, while the picture on the
granite table disappeared.
"Not a bit," King answered. "It's a trick of some sort."
"Is wireless telegraphy a trick then?" retorted the Mahatma. "If so, then
yes, so this is. Only this is as far in advance of wireless telegraphy, as
telegraphy is in advance of the semaphore. This is a science beyond your
knowledge, that is all. Name another city."
"Timbuctu," I said suddenly; and nothing happened.
"Mombasa," I said then, and Mombasa appeared instantly, with Kilindini
harbor fringed with palm-trees.
I had been to Mombasa, whereas I never had seen Timbuctu. Almost certainly
none present had ever seen the place, or even a picture of it.
The Gray Mahatma said something in a surly undertone and the golden light
turned itself on again, flooding the whole chamber. King nodded to me.
"You can speak into a phonograph and reproduce your voice. There's no
reason why you can't think and reproduce that too, if you know how," he
"Aye!" the Mahatma interrupted. "If you know how! India has always known
how! India can teach these sciences to all the world when she comes into her
Throughout, the man who had admitted us had not spoken one word. He stood
with arms folded, as upright as a soldier on parade. But now he unfolded his
arms and began to exhibit signs of restlessness, as if he considered that the
session had lasted long enough. However, he was still silent.
"Your honor is extremely clever. I've enjoyed the exhibition," I said to
him in Hindustanee, but he took not the slightest notice of me, and if he
understood he did not betray the fact.
"Let us go," said the Gray Mahatma, and proceeded to lead the way.
The Gray Mahatma took the other turning of the passage, and knocked on the
door at the end. It was opened by a little man, who once had been extremely
fat, for his skin hung about him in loose folds.
His cavern was smaller than the other, but as clean, and similarly flooded
with the restful golden light. But he was only host; the Gray Mahatma was
showman. He said:
"All energy is vibrations; yet that is only one fraction of the truth. All
is vibration. The universe consists of nothing else. Your Western scientists
are just beginning to discover that, but they are men groping in the dark,
who can feel but not see and understand. Throughout what all nations have
agreed to call the dark ages there have been men called alchemists, whom
other men have mocked because they sought to transmute baser metals into
gold. Do you think they sought what was impossible? Nothing is impossible!
They dimly discerned the possibility. And it may be that their ears had
caught the legend of what has been known in India for countless ages.
"Gold is a system of vibrations, just as every other metal is, and the one
can be changed into the other. But if you knew how to do it, would you dare?
Can you conceive what would happen to the world if it were common knowledge,
or even if it were known to a few, how the transmutation may be brought
about? Now watch!"
What followed was convincing for the simple reason that there was nothing
covered up, and no complicated apparatus that might cause you to suspect an
ordinary conjuring trick. There were certainly strange looking boxes with
hinged lids arranged on a ledge along one side of the chamber, but those were
only brought into play when the funny little ex-fat man selected a lump of
metal from them. On another ledge on the opposite side of the cell there were
about a hundred rolls of very ancient-looking manuscripts, but he did not
make use of them in any way.
The floor was bare, smooth rock; there was nothing on it, not even a mat.
He laid a plain piece of wood on the floor and motioned us to be seated in
front of it; so we squatted in a line with our backs to the door, King taking
his place between the Mahatma and me. There was no hocus-pocus or flummery;
the whole proceeding was as simple as playing dominoes.
Our host went to one of the peculiar looking boxes and selected a lump of
what looked like lead. It was a small piece, about the size of an ordinary
loaf of sugar and had no particular marks on it, except that it looked as if
it might have been cut from a larger piece with shears or some such
instrument. He dropped in into the middle of the slab of wood, and squatted
in front of it, facing us, to watch.
I daresay it took twenty minutes for that lump of lead to change into what
looked like gold before our eyes. It began by sizzling, and melting in little
pits and spots, but never once did the whole lump melt.
The tiny portions that melted and liquefied became full of motion,
although the motion was never in one place for more than about a minute at a
time; and wherever the motion had been the lump lost bulk, so that gradually
the whole piece shrank and shrank. At the end it was not in its original
shape, but had taken the form of a miniature cow's dropping.
I suppose it was hot. Our host waited several minutes before picking it
off the slab.
At last he took the nugget off the slab and tossed it to King. King handed
it to me. It was still warm and it looked and felt like gold. I laid it back
on the slab.
"Do you understand it?" asked the Gray Mahatma.
OUR little wrinkly-skinned host did the honors as far as the
door, and I thanked him for the demonstration; but the Gray Mahatma seemed
displeased with that and ignoring me as usual, turned on King in the doorway
"Do you understand that whoever can do what you have just seen can also
accomplish the reverse of it, and transmute gold into baser metal?" he
demanded. "Does it occur to you what that would mean? A new species of
warfare! One combination of ambitious fools making gold — another
unmaking it. Chaos! Now you shall see another science that is no fit pabulum
We came to a door on our right. It was opened instantly by a lean, mean-
looking ascetic, whose hooked nose suggested an infernal brand of contempt
for whoever might not agree with him. Just as the others had done, he met the
Gray Mahatma's eyes in silence, and admitted us by simply turning his back.
But this door only opened into another passage, and we had to follow him for
fifty feet and then through another door into a cavern that was bigger than
any. And this time our host was not alone. We were expected by a dozen lean,
bronze men, who squatted in a row on one mat with expressionless faces. They
were not wearing masks, but they looked as if they might have been.
This last cavern was certainly a blow-hole. Its round roof, blackened with
smoke, was like the underside of a cathedral dome. No effort seemed to have
been made to trim the walls, and the floor, too, had been left as nature made
it, shaped something like a hollow dish by the pressure of expanding gases
millions of years ago when the rock was molten.
The very center of the vast floor was the lowest point of all, and some
work had been done there, for it was shaped into a rectangular trough thirty
feet long by ten wide. That trough — there was no guessing how deep it
might be — was filled almost to the brim with white-hot charcoal, so
that obviously there was a means of forcing a draft into it from
"Now," said the Mahatma, turning to King as usual and ignoring me, "your
friend may submit to the test if he wishes. He may walk on that furnace. He
shall walk unscathed. I promise it."
King turned to me.
"What d'you say?" he asked. "I've seen this done before.* It can be done.
Shall we try it together?"
I did not hesitate. There are times when even such a slow thinker as I am
can make up his mind in a flash. I said "No" with such emphasis that King
laughed. The Mahatma looked at me rather pityingly, but made no comment. He
invited the two of us to sit down, so we squatted on the floor as close to
the trough as we could go without being scorched. There were no screens or
obstructions of any kind, and the only appliance in evidence was an iron
paddle, which the man who had admitted us picked up off the floor.
He took that paddle, and without any preliminary fuss or hesitation walked
straight on to the bed of white-hot charcoal, beginning at one end, and
smoothed the whole glowing surface with the paddle, taking his time about it
and working with as little excitement as a gardener using a rake. When he had
finished the end of the paddle was better than red-hot — a good cherry-
The hairs on his legs were unscorched. The cotton cloth of which his kilt
was made showed not the slightest trace of burning.
As soon as he had sat down the other twelve advanced toward the fire.
Unlike him, they were stark naked. One by one they walked into the fire and
traversed it from end to end with no more sign of nervousness than if they
had been utterly unconscious of its existence. Then they turned around and
walked back again.
"Is it the men or the fire?" King demanded.
"Neither," the Mahatma answered. "It is simply knowledge. Any one can do
it, who knows how."
One of the men approached the fire again. He sat down on it, and went
through the motions of bathing himself in the white-hot flame, turning his
head repeatedly to grin at us. Then, lying down full-length, he rolled from
end to end of the furnace, and walked away at last as casually as if he had
come out of a bath. It was perfectly astonishing stuff to watch.
"If this isn't superstition, or mesmerism, or deception of some kind, why
do you insist on all this mummery of soot and ashes for my friend and me?"
King demanded. "Why do you use a temple full of Hindu idols to conceal your
science, if it is a natural science and not trickery?"
The Gray Mahatma smiled tolerantly.
"Can you suggest a better way of keeping the secret?" he answered. "We are
protected by the superstition. Not even the Government of India would dare
arouse the superstitious wrath of a people by inquiring too closely into what
goes on beneath a temple. If we were to admit that what we know is science,
just as wireless telegraphy is a science, we would not be safe for an hour;
the military, the kings of commerce, the merely curious, and all the enemies
of mankind would invent ten thousand excuses of investigating us."
"Where did you learn English?" King demanded.
"I am a Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins," the Gray Mahatma answered. "I have
traveled all over the United States seeking for one man who might be trusted
with the rudiments of our science. But I found none."
"Suppose you had found the wrong man — and trusted him?" King
"My friend," said the Gray Mahatma, "you are better known to us than we to
you. You are a man incapable of treachery. You love India, and all your life
you have striven to act always and in all things like a man. You have been
watched for years. Your character has been studied. If our purpose had been
to conquer the world, or to destroy the world, we would never have selected
you. There is no need to speak to you of what would happen if you should
commit treachery. There is no risk of your explaining the secret of our
science to the wrong individual, for you are not going to be taught it."
"Well, what of my friend Ramsden?" King asked him.
"Your friend Mr. Ramsden, I think, will never again see the United
"He has seen too much for his own good. He lacks your mentality. He has
bravery of a kind, and honesty of a kind; but he is — not — the
right — man — for — our — purpose. He made a mistake
when he came with you."
King looked straight into the eyes of the Gray Mahatma.
"You think you know me?" he asked.
"I know you better than you know yourself!"
"That's possible," said King. "Do you suppose I would tell you the
"I know it. I am sure of it. You have too much integrity to deal in
"Very well," King answered quietly, "it's both of us or neither. Either we
both go free, or you do your worst to us both. This man is my friend."
The Gray Mahatma smiled, and thought, and smiled, and looked at King, and
then away again.
"It would be a pity to destroy yourself," he said at last. "Nevertheless,
you are the only chance your friend has. I have no enmity against him; he is
merely unsuitable; he will be the victim of his own shortcomings, unless you
can rescue him. But if you make the attempt and fail, I am afraid, my friend,
that that will be the end of both of you."
It was rather like listening to your own autopsy! I confess that I began
again to feel horribly afraid, although not so much so that I cared to force
King into danger on my account, and once more I made my mind up swiftly. I
reached out to seize the Gray Mahatma by the throat. But King struck my hand
"We're two to their many," he said sternly. "Keep your hair on!"
The Mahatma smiled and nodded.
"A second time you have done well," he exclaimed. "If you can keep the
buffalo from blundering — but we waste time. Come."
King put his hands on my shoulders, and we lock-stepped out of the cavern
behind the Mahatma, looking, I don't doubt, supremely ridiculous, and I for
one feeling furiously helpless.
We entered another cave, whose dome looked like an absolutely perfect
hemisphere, but the whole place was so full of noise that your brain reeled
in confusion. There were ten men in there, naked to the waist as all the rest
had been, and every single one of them had the intelligent look of an alert
bird with its head to one side. They were sitting on mats on the floor in no
apparent order, and each man had a row of tuning forks in front of him,
pretty much like any other tuning forks, except that there were eight of them
to each note and its subdivisions.
Every few minutes one of them would select a fork, strike it, and listen;
then he would get up, dragging his mat after him with all the forks arranged
on it, and sit down somewhere else. But the tuning forks were not the cause
of the din. It was the roar of a great city that was echoing under the dome
— clatter of traffic and men's voices, whistling of the wind through
overhead wires, dogs' barking, an occasional bell, at intervals the whistle
of a locomotive and the rumble and bump of a railroad train, whirring of
dynamos, the clash and thump of trolley cars, street-hawkers' cries, and the
sound of sea-waves breaking on the shore.
"You hear Bombay," said the Mahatma. Then we all sat down in line.
It was actual physical torture until you were used to it, and I doubt
whether you could get used to it without somebody to educate you — some
scientist to show you how to defend your nerves against that outrageous
racket. For the sounds were all out of adjustment and proportion. Nothing was
in key. It was as if the laws of acoustics had been lifted, and sound had
At one moment, apropos of nothing and disconnected from all other sounds,
you could hear a man or a woman speaking as distinctly as if the individual
were up there under the dome; then a chaos of off-key notes would swallow the
voice, and the next might be a dog's bark or a locomotive whistle. The only
continuously recognizable sounds were a power station and the thunder of
waves along the harbor front, and it sounded much more thunderous than it
should have done at that season of the year.
The tuning of an orchestra does not nearly approximate the confusion; for
the members of the orchestra are all trying to find one pitch and are
gradually hitting it, whereas every sound within that cavern seemed to be
pitched and keyed differently.
"This is our latest," said the Mahatma. "It is only for two or three
hundred years that we have been studying this phenomenon. It may possibly
take us two or three hundred years more before we can control it."
I wanted to ask questions, but could not because the cursed inharmony made
my senses reel. Nevertheless, you could hear other sounds perfectly. When I
struck my hand on the rock floor I could hear the slap at least as distinctly
as normal; possibly a little more so. And when the Gray Mahatma spoke, each
word was separate and sharp.
"Now you shall hear another city," he said. "Observe that the voices of
cities are as various as men's. No two are alike. Sound and color are one and
the same thing differently expressed, and the graduations of both are
He caught the eye of one of the men.
"Calcutta!" he said, in a voice not exactly of command, yet certainly not
Without acknowledging the order in any other way, the man got on his knees
and picked up an enormous tuning fork, whose prongs were about three feet
long, and he made some adjustment in the fork of it that took about five
minutes. He might have been turning the screw of a micrometer; I could not
see. Then, raising the fork above his shoulder, he struck the floor with it,
and a master-note as clear as the peal of a bell went ringing up into the
The effect was almost ridiculous. It made you want to laugh. Everybody in
the cavern smiled, and I daresay if the truth were known we had discovered
the mother-lode of comedy. That one note chased all the others out of the
dome as a dog might chase sheep — as the wind blows clouds away —
as a cop drives small boys off the grass. They actually scampered out of
hearing, and you couldn't imagine them hiding close by, either; they were
gone for good, and that one, clear master-note — the middle F —
went vibrating around and around, as if scouring out the very smell of what
had been there.
"That is the key-note of all nature," said the Mahatma. "All sounds, all
colors, all thoughts, all vibrations center in that note. It is the key that
can unlock them all."
The silence that followed when the last ringing overtone had gone off
galloping in its stride toward infinity was the most absolute and awful
silence I have ever had to listen to. The very possibility of sound seemed to
have ceased to exist. You could not believe that there could be sound, nor
remember what sound was like. A whole sense and its functions had been taken
from you, and the resultant void was dead — so dead that no sense could
live in it, unless fear is a sense. You could feel horribly afraid, and I'll
tell you what the fear amounted to:
There was a feeling that these men were fooling with the force that runs
the universe, and that the next stroke might be a mistake that would result
like the touching of two high-tension wires, multiplied to the nth.
You could not resist the suggestion that the world might burst in fragments
at any minute.
Meanwhile the fellow with the tuning fork fiddled again with some
adjustment on the thick portion of its stem, and presently whirling it around
his head as the old-time warriors used two-handed swords, he brought it down
on one of a circle of small anvils that were arranged around him like the
figures on a clock-face.
You could almost see Calcutta instantly! The miracle was the reverse of
the preceding one. The ringing, subdivided, sharp, discordant note he struck
was swallowed instantly in a sea of noise that seemed not only to have color
but even smell to it; you could smell Calcutta! But that, of course, was mere
suggestion — a trick of the senses of the sort that makes your mouth
water when you see another fellow suck a lemon.
You could even hear the crows that sit on the trees in the park and caw at
passers-by. You could hear the organ in a Christian church, and the snarl of
a pious Moslem reading from the Koran. There was the click of ponies' hoofs,
the whirring and honk of motor-cars, the sucking of Hoogli River, booming of
a steamer-whistle, roars of trains, and the peculiar clamor of Calcutta's
swarms that I can never hear without thinking of a cobra with its hood just
ready to raise.
In the sea of noises in the dome one instantly stood out — the voice
of a man speaking English with a slightly babu accent. For exactly as long as
the reverberations of those two tuning forks lasted, you could hear him
declaiming, and then his voice faded away into the ocean of noise like a rock
that has shown for a moment above the surface of a maelstrom.
"That is a member of the legislature, where ignorant men in all-night
session make laws for fools to break," said the Gray Mahatma.
Signing to King and me to remain seated, he himself crossed the floor to
where the master-tuner sat, and squatting down beside him began picking up
tuning forks and striking one against the other. Each time he did that some
city sound or other distinguished itself for a moment, exactly as the theme
appears in music; only some of the vibrations seemed to jar against others
instead of blending with them, and when that happened the effect was
At last he struck a combination that made me jump as effectually as sudden
tooth-ache. Some of the other sounds had affected King more, but that
particular one passed him by and tortured me. Watching with his head a little
to one side the Gray Mahatma instantly began striking those two forks as
rapidly as if he were clapping hands, increasing the vehemence with each
If I had stayed there I would have been stark mad or dead within five
minutes. I felt as if I were being vibrated asunder — as if my whole
body were resolving into its component parts. I lay on the floor with my head
in both hands, and I daresay yelled with agony, but I don't know about
At any rate King understood and acted instantly. He seized me under the
arms and dragged me face-downward to the door, where he had to drop me in
order to find how to open the thing. Having accomplished that, he dragged me
through into the passage, where the agony ceased as instantly as the ache
does when a dentist pulls an abscessed tooth. No one sound reached us through
the open door. However immature that particular branch of their science might
be, they had learned the way of absolutely localizing noise.
The Gray Mahatma came out smiling, and ignoring me as if I was not
He opened another door, not requiring to knock this time, and led the way
along another passage that wound through solid rock for what can hardly have
been less than a quarter of a mile.
King had dragged me out of that dome of dins in the nick of time, and my
head was recovering rapidly. By the time we reached a door at the end of that
long passage I could think clearly, and although too weak to stand upright
without holding on to something, was sufficiently recovered to know that the
remainder would be only a matter of minutes. And we spent three or four of
the minutes waiting for the door to open, which it did at last suddenly.
A man appeared in the opening, whose absolutely white hair reached below
his shoulder-blades, and whose equally white beard descended to his middle.
He wore the usual loin-cloth, but was usual in nothing else. He looked older
than Methuselah, yet strong, for his muscles stood out like knotted
whip-cords; and active, for he stood on the balls of his feet with the
immobility that only comes of ableness. The most unusual thing of all was
that he spoke. He said several words in Sanskrit to the Gray Mahatma, before
turning his back on us and leading the way in.
WE went into a cavern whose floor was cup-shaped. Nearly all
the way around the rim of the cup was an irregular ledge averaging twenty
feet in width; with that exception, the whole interior was shaped like an
enormous egg with its narrow end upward. The bottom was nowhere less than a
hundred feet across, and was reached by steps cut irregularly downward from
At intervals around the ledge were seated about a score of men, some
solitary, some in groups of three; some were naked, others wore loin-cloths;
all were silent, but they all took an obvious interest in us, and some of
them were grinning. A few of them squatted, with their legs tucked under
them, but most of them let their legs hang over the edge, and they all had an
air of perfect familiarity with the surroundings as well as what can be best
described as a "team look." You see the same air of careless competence
around a well-managed circus lot.
King and I followed the Gray Mahatma down into the bowl, and under his
directions seated ourselves exactly in the middle, King and I back to back
and the Mahatma a little way from us and also with his back turned. In that
position my back was toward the door we had entered by, but I was able to see
nine narrow openings in the opposite wall about twenty feet higher than the
ledge, and those openings may have had something to do with what followed,
although I can't prove it.
Old gray-beard, who had admitted us, stood on the ledge like a picture of
St. Simon Stylites, folding his arms under his flowing beard and looking
almost ready to plunge downward, as if the bowl were a swimming tank.
However, he suddenly filled his great scrawny breast with air and boomed
out one word. The golden light ceased to exist. There was no period of going,
as there is even with electric light. He spoke, and it was not. Nothing
whatever was visible. I held a finger up, and poked my eye before I knew
Then all at once there began the most delicious music, like Ariel singing
in mid-air. It was subdued, but as clear as the ripple of a mountain stream
over pebbles, and there was absolutely no locating it, for it seemed to come
from everywhere at once, even from underneath us. And simultaneously with the
music there began to be a dim light, which was all the more impossible to
locate because it was never the same color in two places, nor even in one
place for longer than a note of music lasted.
"Observe!" boomed the Gray Mahatma's solemn voice. "Color and sound are
one. Both are vibration. You shall behold the color harmonies."
Presently the connection between sound and color began to be obvious. Each
note had its color, and as that note was sounded the color appeared in a
It was Eastern music. It filled the cavern, and as the pulse of it
quickened the light danced, colors shooting this and that way like shuttles
weaving a new sky. But there were no drum-beats yet, and the general effect
was rather of dreaminess.
When the old gray-beard's voice boomed out at last from the ledge above
us, and light and music ceased simultaneously, the effect was nauseating. It
went to the pit of your stomach. The instantaneous darkness produced vertigo.
You felt as if you were falling down an endless pit, and King and I clutched
each other. The mere fact that we were squatting on a hard floor did not help
matters, for the floor seemed to be falling too and to be turning around
bewilderingly, just as the whorls of colored light had done. The gray-beard's
voice boomed again; whereat there was more music, and light in tune to
This time, of all unexpected things, Beethoven's Overture to Leonore began
to take visible form in the night, and I would rather be able to set down
what we saw than write Homer's Iliad! It must be that we knew then all that
Beethoven did. It was not just wind music, or mere strings, but a whole,
full-volumed orchestra — where or whence there was no guessing; the
music came at you from everywhere at once, and with it light, interpreting
To me that has always been the most wonderful overture in the world
anyhow, for it seems to describe creation when the worlds took form in the
void; but with that light, each tone and semi-tone and chord and harmony
expressed in the absolutely pure color that belonged to it, it was utterly
beyond the scope of words. It was a new unearthly language, more like a
glimpse of the next world than anything in this.
The combination of color and music was having a highly desirable effect on
me. Nothing could have done more to counteract the effects of the godless din
that bowled me over in the other cavern.
But King was having a rotten time. He was heaving now as he tried to
master himself. I heard him exclaiming —
"Oh my God!" as if the physical torture were unbearable.
The Gray Mahatma was not troubling about King. He had shifted his position
so as to watch me, and he seemed to expect me to collapse. So I showed as
little as possible of my real feelings, and shut my eyes at intervals as if
bewildered. Then he cried out just as the gray-beard on the ledge had
The overture to Leonore ceased. The colors gave place to the restful
golden light. King had not collapsed yet, and his usual Spartan self-mastery
prevented him then from betraying much in the way of symptoms. So I clutched
my head and tried to look all-in, which gave me a chance to whisper to King
under my arm.
"Can you hang on?"
"Dunno. How are you doing?"
The Gray Mahatma seemed to think that I was appealing to King for help. He
looked delighted. Between my fingers I could see him signaling to the gray-
beard on the ledge. The golden light vanished again. And now once more they
gave us Eastern music, awful stuff, pulsating with a distant drumbeat like
the tramp of an army of devils. The colors were angry and glowering now. The
shapes they took as they plaited and wove themselves into one another were
all involuted, everything turning itself inside out, and the end of every
separate movement was blood-red.
King groaned aloud and rolled over on his side, just as the stuff became
so dim and dreadful that you could hardly see your hand before your face, and
a noise like the rushing of the wind between the worlds made every inch of
your skin prickly with goose-flesh. Low though the colors were, when you shut
your eyes you could still see them, but I could not see the Gray Mahatma, and
I was sure he could not see me. He would not know which of us was down and
So I seized King and dragged him across the floor to the point where the
irregular stone steps provided the only way of escape. There I hove him like
a sack on to my shoulders. In that drunken, throbbing twilight it would have
been easy for some of the gray-beard's crew to lean from the ledge and send
me reeling back again; the best chance was to climb quickly before they were
aware of me.
When I reached the ledge it was deserted. There was nothing whatever to
indicate where the gray-beard and his crew were. I could not remember exactly
the direction of the entrance, but made for the wall, intending to feel my
way along it; and just as I started to do that I heard the Gray Mahatma
climbing up behind me.
He made hardly more noise than a cat. But though the Mahatma was stealthy,
he came swiftly, and in a moment I felt his hand touch me. That was exactly
at the moment when the music and colors were subdued to a sort of hell-brew
twilight — the kind of glow you might expect before the overwhelming of
"You are as strong as the buffalo himself," he said, mistaking me for
King. "Leave that fool here, and come with me."
My right hand was free, but the Gray Mahatma had plenty of assistance at
his beck and call.
So I put my hand in the small of his back and shoved him along in front of
me. If he should learn too soon that King, and not I, was down and out he
might decide to have done with us both there and then. My task was to get out
of that cavern before the golden light came on again.
The Gray Mahatma led the way to the door, and it was just as well that he
did, for there was some secret way of opening it that I should almost
certainly have failed to find. I pushed him through ahead of me.
And then we were in pitch darkness. There was neither light, nor room to
turn, and nothing for it but for the Mahatma to lead the way along, and I had
to be careful in carrying King not to injure him against the rock in the
places where the passage narrowed.
However, he began to recover gradually as we neared the end of the long
passage, regaining consciousness by fits and starts like a man coming out of
anesthesia, and commencing to kick so that I had hard work to preserve him
from injury. When his feet were not striking out against the walls his head
was, and I finally shook him violently. That had the desired effect. It was
just as if fumes had gone out of his head. His body grew warmer almost in a
moment, and I felt him break out into a sweat. Then he groaned, and asked me
where we were; and a moment later he seemed to understand what was happening,
for he struggled to free himself.
"All right," he whispered. "Let me walk."
So I let him slip down to his feet in front of me, and holding him beneath
the armpits repeated our lock-step trick with positions reversed; and when we
reached the outer door that gave on to the narrow main passage he was going
fairly strong. The Mahatma opened the door and stepped out into the light;
but it was the strange peculiarity of that light that it did not flow beyond
its appointed boundaries, and we continued to be in darkness as long as we
did not follow him through the door.
So when King stepped out ahead of me, the Mahatma had no means of knowing
what a mistake he had been making all along. He naturally jumped to the
conclusion that King had been carrying me.
When I stepped out of the pitch blackness he looked more than a little
surprised at my appearance, and I grinned back at him as sheepishly as I
could manage, hoping he would not see the red patch on my shoulder caused by
the pressure of King's weight, or the scratches made by King's fingernails
when he was beginning to recover consciousness. Nevertheless, he did see, and
"Lead on, MacDuff!" I said in plain English, and perhaps he did not
dislike me so immensely after all, for he smiled as he turned his back to
lead the way.
We passed, without meeting anybody, out through the narrow door where the
first tall speechless showman had admitted us, into the cave where the lingam
reposed on its stone altar; and there the Mahatma resumed the lantern he had
When we climbed the oval stairway and emerged on the platform under the
cupola the dawn was just about to break. The Gray Mahatma raised the stone
lid with an ease that betrayed unsuspected strength and dropped it into
place, where it fitted so exactly that no one ignorant of the secret would
ever have guessed the existence of a hidden stairway.
Swinging his lantern the Mahatma led into the temple, where the enormous
idols loomed in quivering shadow, and made straight for the biggest one of
all — the four-headed one that faced the marble screen. I thought he
was going to bow down and worship it. He actually did go down on hands and
knees, and I turned to King in amazement, thus missing my chance to see what
he was really up to.
So I don't know how he managed it; but suddenly the whole lower part of
the idol, including the thighs, swung outward and disclosed a dark passage,
into which he led us, and the stone swung back into place at our backs as if
balanced by weights.
At the far end the Mahatma led into a square-mouthed tunnel, darker if
that were possible than the vaulted gloom we had left, and as we entered in
single file I thought I heard the splashing of water underneath.
About a minute after that the Mahatma stopped and let King draw abreast;
then, continuing to swing the lantern he started forward again. I don't know
whether it was fear, intuition, or just curiosity that made me wonder why he
should change the formation in that way, but quite absurdly I deduced that he
wished King to walk into a trap. It was that that saved me.
"Look out, King!" I warned.
Exactly as I spoke I set my foot on a yielding stone trap-door —
felt a blast of cool air — and heard water unmistakably. The air
brought a stagnant smell with it. I slid forward and downward, but sprang
simultaneously, managing to get my fingers on the edge of the stone in front.
But the balanced trap-door, resuming its equilibrium, caught me on the back
of the head, half-stunning me, and in another second I would have gone down
into the dark among the alligators. I just had enough consciousness left to
realize that I was hanging over the covered end of the alligator tank.
But the faint outer circle of light cast by the Mahatma's lantern just
reached me, and as King turned his head to acknowledge my warning he saw me
fall. He sprang back, and seized my wrists, just as my fingers began slipping
on the smooth stone; but my weight was almost too much for him, and I came so
near to dragging him through after me that the stone trap got past my head
and jammed against my elbows.
Then I heard King yelling for the Mahatma to bring the lantern back, and
after what seemed an interminable interval the Mahatma came and set one foot
on the stone, so that it swung past my head again, nearly braining me in its
descent. I don't know whether he intended that or not.
"There is more in this than accident," he said, his voice booming hollow
as he bent to let the light fall on me. "Very well; pull up your buffalo, and
you shall have him!"
It was no easy task for the two of them to haul me up, because the moment
the Mahatma removed his foot from the lid of the trap the thing swung upward
and acted like the tongue of a buckle to keep me from coming through. When he
set his foot on it again, the other foot did not give him sufficient
purchase. Finally King managed to pull his loin-cloth off and pass it around
under my armpits, after which the two together hauled me clear, minus in the
aggregate about a half square foot of skin that I left on the edge of the
Off the Mahatma went alone again, swinging his lantern, and apparently at
peace with himself and the whole universe.
Thereafter, King and I walked arm-in-arm, thinking in that way to lessen
the risk of further pitfalls. But there was no more. The Mahatma reached at
last what looked like a blind stone wall at the end of the tunnel; but there
was a flagstone missing from the floor in front of it, and he disappeared
down a black-dark flight of steps.
We followed him into a cellar, whose walls wept moisture, but we saw no
cobras; and then up another flight of steps on the far side into a chamber
that I thought I recognized. He disappeared through a door in the corner of
that, and by the time we had groped our way after him he was sitting in the
old black panther's cage with the brute's head in his lap, stroking and
twisting its ears as if it were a kitten. The cage door was wide open, and
the day was already growing hot and brassy in the east.
King and I hurried out of the cage, for the panther showed his fangs at
us; the Mahatma followed us out and snapped the door shut. Instantly the
panther sprang at us, trying to bend the bars together. Failing in that, he
lay close and shoved his whole shoulder through, clawing at us. It was hardly
any wonder that that secret, yet so simply discoverable door between
Yasmini's palace and the temple-caverns was unknown.
We swung along through the great bronze gate and into the courtyard where
the shrubs all stood reflected along with the marble stairway in a square
pool. We plunged right in without as much as hesitating on the brink,
dragging the Mahatma with us — not that he made the least objection. He
laughed, and seemed to regard it as thoroughly good fun.
We splashed and fooled for a few minutes, standing neck-deep and kicking
at an occasional fish as it darted by, stirring up mud with our toes until
the water was so cloudy that we could see the fish no longer. Then King
thought of clothes. He stood on tiptoe and shouted.
"Ismail! O — Ismail!"
Ismail came, like a yellow-fanged wolf, bowed to the Mahatma as if
nakedness and royalty were one, and stood eyeing the water curiously.
"Get us garments!" King ordered testily.
"I was not staring at thee, little King sahib," he answered. "I was
But he went off without explaining what he had been marveling at, and we
went on with our ablutions, the job of getting ashes out of your hair not
being quite so easy as it might appear. I daresay it was fifteen minutes
before Ismail came back carrying two complete native costumes for King and
me, and a long saffron robe for the Mahatma. Then we came out of the water
and the Gray Mahatma smiled.
"I said there were no more traps, and it seems I spoke the truth," he said
wonderingly. "Moreover, I did not set this trap, but it was you yourselves
who led me into it."
"Which trap?" we demanded with one voice.
"You have stirred the mud, my friends, to a condition in which the
mugger who lives in that pool is not visible. But the mugger is
there, and I don't know why he did not seize one of you!"
In the center of the pool there was a rockery, for the benefit of plant-
roots and breeding fish. I walked around it to look, and there, sure enough,
lay a brute about twenty feet long, snoozing with his chin on a corner of the
rock. I picked up a pole to prod him and he snapped and broke it, coming
close to the edge to clatter his jaws at me. Prodding him a last time, I
turned round to look for the Mahatma. He had vanished — gone as utterly
and silently as a myth. King had not seen him go. We inquired of Ismail. He
"There is only one place to go — here," he answered.
"To the Princess?"
"There is nowhere else! Who shall disobey her? I have orders to unloose
the panther if the sahibs take any other way than straight into her
DRESSED now in the Punjabi costume with gorgeous silk
turbans, we walked side by side up the marble steps and knocked on the
brass-bound, teak front door at the top. Exactly as when we arrived on the
previous day, the door was immediately opened by two women.
The Mahatma was in there ahead of us, and had evidently told Yasmini
sufficient of our adventures to make her laugh. She squealed with delight at
sight of us.
"Come! Sit beside me in the window, both of you! My women will bring food.
Afterward you shall sleep — poor things, you look as if you need it! O,
what is that, Ganesha-ji? Blood on your linen? Were you hurt?"
Her swift, restless fingers drew the cloth aside and showed a few inches
of where my bare skin should have been.
"It is nothing. My women shall dress it. They have oils that will cause
the skin to grow again within a week. A week is nothing; you and Athelstan
will be here longer than a week! And you crossed the Pool of Terrors? I have
crossed that too! we three are initiates now!"
"Ye are three who will die unless discretion is the very law ye live by!"
said the Gray Mahatma. He seemed annoyed about something.
"Old Dust-and-ashes!" laughed Yasmini, snapping her fingers at him. "Hah!"
She laughed delightedly. "They have seen enough to make them believe what I
shall tell them!"
"Woman, you woo your own destruction. None has ever set out to betray that
secret and survived the first offense!" he answered.
"It was you who betrayed it to me," she said, with another
golden laugh. Then, turning to King again:
"I have sought for that secret day and night! India has always known of
its existence; and in every generation some have fought their way in through
the outer mysteries to the knowledge within. But those who enter always
become initiates, and keep the secret. I was puzzled how to begin, until I
heard how, in England, a woman once overheard the secrets of Freemasonry, and
was made a Freemason in consequence.
"Now behold this man they call the Gray Mahatma! He does as I tell him!
You must know that these Knowers of Royal Knowledge, as they call themselves,
are not the little birds in one nest that they would like to be; they quarrel
among themselves, and there is a rival faction that knows only street-corner
magic, but is more deadly bent on knowing Royal Knowledge than a wolf is
determined to get lamb."
The Gray Mahatma saw fit to challenge some of that statement.
"It is true, that there are wolves who seek to break in," he said quietly,
"but it is false that there are quarrels among ourselves."
"Hah!" That little laugh of hers was like the exclamation of a fellow who
has got home with his rapier point.
"Quarrels or not," she answered, "there is a faction that was more than
willing to use the ancient passage under my palace grounds, and to hold
secret meetings in a room that I made ready for them."
"Faction!" The Gray Mahatma sneered. "Faithful seniors determined to expel
unfaithful upstarts are not a faction!"
"At any rate," she chuckled, "they wished to hold a meeting unbeknown to
the others, and they wished to make wonderful preparations for not being
overheard. And I helped them — is that not so, Mahatma-ji? You see,
they were scornful of women — then."
"Peace, woman!" the Mahatma growled. "Does a bee sting while it gathers
honey? You spied on our secrets, but did we harm you for it?"
"You did not dare!" she retorted. "If I had been alone, you would have
destroyed me along with those unfortunates on whose account you held the
meeting. It would have been easy to throw me to the mugger. But you
did not know how many women had overheard your secrets! You only knew, that
more than one had, and that at least ten women witnessed the fate of your
victims. Is that not so?"
"Victims is the wrong word. Call them culprits!" said the Gray
"What would the Government call them?" she retorted.
The Gray Mahatma curled his lip, but made no answer to that. Yasmini
turned to King.
"So I knew enough of their secrets to oblige them either to kill me or
else teach me all. And they did not dare kill me, because they could not kill
all my women too, for fear of Government. So first they took me through that
ordeal that you went through last night. And ever since then I have been
trying to learn; but this science of theirs is difficult, and I suspect them
of increasing the difficulty for my benefit. Nevertheless, I have mastered
some of it."
"You have mastered none of it!" the Gray Mahatma retorted discourteously.
"The golden light is the first step. Show me some."
"They thought they were being too clever for me," she went on. "They
listened to my suggestion that it might be wise to show Athelstan King the
mysteries, and send him to America to prepare the way for what is coming. So
we set a trap for Athelstan. And Athelstan brought Ganesha with him. So now I
have two men who know the secret, in addition to myself and all my women. And
I have one man who has skill enough to learn the secret, now that he
knows of it. Perhaps both men can learn it, and I know full well that
"And then?" King suggested.
"You shall conquer the world!" she answered.
King smiled and said nothing.
"I am uncertain yet whether or not I shall choose to be queen of the
earth!" she said. "Sometimes I think it would be fun for you and me to be
absolute king and queen of everywhere. Sometimes I think it will be better to
make some stupid person — say Ganesha here, for instance — king,
and for ourselves to be the power behind the throne. What do youthink,
"I think," he answered.
"And you observe that the Gray Mahatma likewise thinks!" said she. "He
thinks what he can do to thwart us! But I am not afraid! Oh dear no, Mahatma-
ji, I am not at all fearful! Your secret is not worth ten seconds' purchase
unless it is of use to me!"
"Woman, is your word worth nothing?" asked the Gray Mahatma. "You can not
use what you know and keep the secret too. Let those two men escape, and the
secret will be blown to the winds within the hour."
She laughed outright at him.
"They shall not escape, old raven-in-a-robe!"
Just then some of her women brought a table in, and spread it with fruit-
laden dishes at the far end of the room. Yasmini rose to see whether all was
as she wished it, and I got a chance, not only to look through the curtains,
but also to whisper to King. He shook his head in reply to my question.
"Could you manage for two, do you think?" he asked; and by that I knew him
for a vastly more than usually brave man. Consenting to what you know is sure
to destroy you, if the other fellow fails, calls for courage.
"Makes a two to one chance of it," I answered.
"Very well, it's a bet. Give your orders!" said King.
The Mahatma sat rigid in mid-room with closed eyes, as if praying. His
hands were crossed on his breast, and his legs twisted into a nearly
unimaginable knot. He looked almost comatose.
The shutters and the glass windows were open wide to admit the morning
breeze. Nothing was between us and freedom but the fluttering silk curtains
and a drop of about seventy feet into an unknown river.
"Hold my hand," I said, "and jump your limit outward!"
The Gray Mahatma opened one eye and divined our intention.
"Mad!" he exclaimed. "So then that is the end of them!"
He believed what he said, for he sat still. But Yasmini came running,
screaming to her women to prevent us.
King and I took off together, hand-in-hand, and I take my Bible oath that
I looked up, and saw Yasmini and the Gray Mahatma leaning out of the window
to watch us drown!
Of course, seventy feet is nothing much — provided you are used to
the take-off, and know the water, and have a boat waiting handy to pick you
up. But we had none of these advantages, and in addition to that we had the
grievous handicap that King could not swim a stroke.
We took the water feet-first, close together, and that very instant I knew
what we were up against. As we plunged under, we were whirled against a
sunken pole that whipped and swayed in the current. King was wrenched away
from me. When I fought my way to the surface I was already a hundred yards
beyond the palace wall, and there was no sign of King, although I could see
his turban pursuing mine down-stream. We were caught in the strongest current
I had ever striven with.
I don't know what persuaded me to turn and try to swim against it for a
moment. Instinct, I suppose. It was utterly impossible; I was swept along
backward almost as fast as I had been traveling before. But what the effort
did do was to bring me face-up-stream, and so I caught sight of King clinging
to a pole and being bobbed under every time the weight of water caused the
pole to duck. I managed to cling to a pole myself, although like King it
ducked me repeatedly, and it was perfectly evident that neither of us would
be alive in the next ten minutes unless a boat should come or I should
produce enough brawn and brain for two of us. And there was no boat in
So between ducks I yelled to King to let go and drift down toward me. He
did it; and that, I believe, is the utmost test of cold courage to which I
have ever seen any man subjected; for even a strong swimmer becomes
panic-stricken when he learns he is no longer master of his element. King had
the self-control and pluck to lie still and drift down on me like a corpse,
and I let go the pole in the nick of time to seize him as his head went
Followed a battle royal. Fight how I might, I could not keep both of our
heads out of the water more than half the time, and King very soon lost the
little breath that was left in him. Thereafter, he struggled a bit, but that
did not last long, and presently he became unconscious. I believed he was
The choice then seemed to lie between drowning too or letting go of him. I
did not dare try the shallows, for ninety per cent. of them are quicksands in
that river, and more than one army has perished in the effort to force its
way across. The only possible safety lay in keeping to mid-stream and
sweeping along with the current until something should turn up — a boat
— a log — possibly a backwater, or even the breakwater of a
So I decided to drown, and to annoy the angels of the underworld by taking
as long as possible in the process. And I set to work to fight as I had never
in my whole life fought before. It was like swimming in a millrace. The
current swirled us this and that way, but everlastingly forward.
Sometimes the current rolled us over and over on each other, but for fifty
per cent. of the time I managed to keep King on top of me, I swimming on my
back and holding him by both arms, head nearly out of the water. I can't
explain exactly why I went to all that trouble, for I was convinced he was
I remember wondering what the next world was going to be like, and whether
King and I would meet there, or whether we would each be sent to a sphere
suited to our individual requirements — and if so, what my sphere would
be like, and whether either of us would ever meet Yasmini, and what she would
be doing there. But it never occurred to me once that Athelstan King might be
alive yet, or that he and I would be presently treading mother earth
I remember several terrific minutes when a big tree came whirling toward
us in an eddy, and my legs got tangled up in some part of it that was under
water. Then, when I managed to struggle free, King's cotton loin-cloth became
wrapped in a tangle of twigs and I could neither wrench nor break him free;
whenever I tried it I merely sent myself under and pulled his head after
However, that tree suggested the possibility of prolonging the agony a
I seized a branch and tried to take advantage of it, using all my strength
and skill to keep the tree from rolling over on King and submerging him
completely. I can remember when we whirled under the steel bridge and the
tree struck the breakwater of the middle pier; that checked us for a moment,
and instead of sending us under, dragged King half out of the water, so that
he lay after that on top of a branch.
Then the stream got us going again, and swung the butt end of the tree
around so that I was forced by it backward through the arch of the bridge;
and after that for more than a mile we were waltzed round and round past
sand-banks where the alligators lay on the look-out for half-burned corpses
from the burning ghats higher up.
At last we swung round a curve in the river and came on a quiet bay where
they were washing elephants. The current swung the tree inshore to a point
where it struck a submerged sand-bank and stuck there; and there we lay with
the current racing by, and King bobbing up and down with his head out of
water, and I too weak by that time to break off the twig around which his
loin-cloth was wrapped.
Well, there we were; but after a few minutes I raised enough steam for the
whistle at all events. I yelled until my own ear-drums seemed to be bursting
and my lungs ached from the pressure on the water in them, and after what
seemed an eternity one of the mahouts on shore heard me.
Hope surged triumphant! I could see him wave his arm, and already I saw
visions of dry land again, and a disappointed Yama! But I was overlooking one
important point: we were in India, where rescues are not undertaken in a
He called a conference. I saw all the mahouts gather together in one place
and stare at us and talk. They swung their arms as they argued. I don't know
what argument it was that finally appealed to the mahouts, but after an
interminable session one of them fetched a long rope and nine or ten of them
climbed on the backs of three big elephants. They worked their way a little
bit upstream, and then came as close as the elephants dared. One of the big
brutes felt his way cautiously to within twenty yards, and then threw up his
trunk and refused to budge another inch.
At that a lean, naked, black man stood up on his rump and paid out the
rope down-stream. He had to make nine or ten attempts before it finally
floated within reach of my hand. Then I made it fast to the tree and, taking
King in my right arm, started to work my way along it. It was just as well I
did that, and got clear of the branch; for the mahouts passed the rope around
the elephant's neck and set him to hauling; he rolled the tree over and over,
and that would surely have been the end of King and me if we had been within
reach of the overturning branches. As it was I clung to the rope and the
elephant hauled the lot of us high and dry.
AT the end of a minute's examination I began to suspect that
King was not quite dead, so I recalled the old life-saver's drill and got to
work on him. It took time. As King came more and more to his senses, and
vomited a bit, and began to behave in all ways like a living man again, I had
a chance to talk to the mahouts; and they were just like the members of any
other union, preferring conversation to alleged hard labor any day of the
week. They told me why the elephants were being washed so early and we
enjoyed a regular conversazione on the beach.
It appeared the elephants were wanted to take part in a procession, and
for a while they let me guess what sort of a procession. But at last they
took compassion on my ignorance.
"She has issued invitations to a party for princesses in her
Who was she? Everybody knew who she was!
"The Princess Yasmini?" I suggested.
Whereat they all chuckled and made grimaces, and did everything except
acknowledge her name in public.
And then suddenly Athelstan King decided to sit up and spat some more
water out and tried to laugh. And they thought that was so exquisitely funny
that they all laughed too.
Then, when he had coughed a little more —
"We're going to attend that party!"
"Why?" I asked him.
"Two reasons." But he had to cough up more water before he could tell
them. "One: The Gray Mahatma will never rest until he knows we're dead, or
done for, and the safest place is close to the enemy; and, two: I never will
rest until I know the secret of that science of theirs!"
"How in thunder are we going to get back?" I objected.
"Ride!" he suggested.
"How — when — where?"
"Elephant — now — to her palace," he answered.
"They're not her elephants."
"So much the better! She'll think the Maharajah knows all about us. She'll
have to accord us protection after that."
He asked a dozen more questions, and finally struggled to his feet.
"My friend," he said then to the chief mahout, "if you propose to take us
two sahibs to her palace, and be back at your master's stables
in time to get ready for the Bibi-kana, you'll have to hurry!"
"But I did not propose it!" the mahout answered.
"Nay, the gods proposed it. Which is your fastest elephant?"
"That great one yonder — Akbar. But who is giving orders? We are a
"The gods are ordering all this business!" King assured him. "I wish to
ride to her palace."
"By her leave?"
"By the gods' leave."
"Will the gods pay me?"
"Doubtless. But she will pay first — setting the gods a good
The native of India finds it perfectly convenient to ride on a six-inch
plank, slung more or less like a house-painter's platform against an
elephant's bulging ribs, and it does not seem to make much difference to him
when more weight is on one side than on the other. But King and I had to
stand and hold each other's hands across the pad; and even so we were by no
means too secure, for Akbar resented being taken away from the herd and
behaved like a mutinous earthquake.
It was not so far to the city by road, because the river wound a good deal
and the road cut straight from point to point. But it was several miles, and
we covered it at pretty nearly the speed of a railroad train.
In spite of his rage, Akbar had perfect control of himself. Having missed
about half his morning swim, and the herd's society, he proposed to miss
nothing else, and there was not one cart, one ekka, one piled-up load
in all those miles that he did not hit and do his utmost to destroy. There
was not one yellow dog that he did not give chase to and try to trample
He stopped to pull the thatch from the roof of a little house beside the
road, but as the plying ankus made his head ache he couldn't stay long
enough to finish that job but scooted uproad again in full pursuit of a Ford
car, while an angry man shoved his head through the hole in the roof of the
house and cursed all the rumps of all the elephants, together with the
forebears and descendants of their owners and their wives.
It seemed that Akbar was fairly well-known thereabouts. The men in the
Ford car shouted the news in advance of his coming, and the road into the
city began to look like the track of a routed army. Every man and animal took
to his heels, and Akbar trumpeted wild hurrahs as he strained all tendons in
pursuit. He needed no second wind, because he never lost his first, but he
took the whole course as far as the city gate at a speed that would have
satisfied Jehu, son of Nimshi, who, the Bible says, made Israel to sin.
That particular city gate consisted of an arch, covered with carvings of
outrageous-looking gods, and as a picture display it was perfect, but as an
entrance to a crowded city it possessed no virtue. It was so narrow that only
one vehicle could pass at a time, and the whole swarm jammed between it and
us like sticks in front of a drain.
And not even Akbar's strength was so great that he could shove them
through, so the ancient problem of an irresistible force in contact with an
immovable object was presented, and solved by Akbar after a fashion of his
He picked the softest spot, which was a wain-load of cotton bales, and
upset it, cannoning off that cushion so swiftly as to come within an ace of
scattering his four passengers across the landscape; and discerning, with a
swift strategic eye that would have done credit to the dashingest cavalry
general, that that rout was complete and nothing could be gained by adding to
it, he headed for the river and the women's bathing place, took the broad
stone steps at a dead run, and plunged straight in.
No ship was ever launched with more perfect aplomb, nor floated more
superbly on an even keel than did Akbar at the women's bathing ghat. For a
moment I thought he proposed to lie down there and finish his interrupted
toilet, but he contented himself with squirting water on the sore spot caused
by the thumping ankus of the driver's and set out to swim
It was not until he had reached the second ghat and climbed the steps
there that Akbar put himself in Napoleon's class. When he reached the top of
the steps no amount of whacking with the ankus could make him turn to
the right and follow the city street. He turned to the left, tooted a couple
of wild hurrahs through his newly wetted whistle, and raced to meet the
traffic as it struggled through the gate in single file!
There was ruin ripe for harvest and it looked like the proper time to
jump. But suddenly — with that delightful wheeled panic at his mercy,
the big brute stopped, stood still and looked at them, muttering and gurgling
to himself. Instantly the mahout began petting him, calling him endearing
names and praising his wisdom and discretion. I can't swear that the beast
understood what was said to him, but he acted exactly as if he did. He picked
up dust from the street with his trunk, blew a little of it in the general
direction of the defeated enemy, blew a little more on himself, and turned
his rump toward the gate, as if to signify that hostilities were over!
As he did that, a man who was something of an athlete swung himself up on
the off-side footboard, and a second later the proud face of the Gray Mahatma
confronted me across the saddle-pad alongside King's!
"You are heavy enough to balance the two of us," he said, as if no other
comment were necessary. "Why did you run away from me? You can never
Well, of course anybody could say that after he had found us again.
"Was it you who checked this elephant?" I asked him, remembering what he
had done to the black panther and the snakes, but he did not answer.
"Where do you think you are going?" I asked.
"That is what the dry leaves asked of the wind," he answered. "An
observant eye is better than a yearning ear, and patience outwears
Suddenly I recalled a remark that King had made on the beach and it dawned
on me that by frightening the mahout into silence the Mahatma might undo the
one gain we had made by that plunge and swim. As long as the Maharajah who
owned the elephant was to hear about our adventure, all was well. News of us
would reach the Government. Most of the maharajahs are pro-British, because
their very existence as reigning princes depends on that attitude, and they
can be relied on to report to the British authorities any irregularity
whatever that comes under their notice and at the same time does not
The same thought probably occurred to King, but he was rather too recently
recovered from drowning to be quick yet off the mark and besides, the Mahatma
was between him and the mahout, whereas I had a free field. So I tugged at
the arm of the second mahout, who was sitting behind his chief, and he
scrambled down beside me.
The Mahatma tried to take immediate advantage of that, and the very thing
he did made it all the easier for me to deal with the second mahout, who had
made the trip with us and who stared into my face with a kind of puzzled
mistrust. The Mahatma, as active as a cat, climbed up behind the chief mahout
and sat astride the elephant's neck in the place where the second mahout had
been, and began whispering.
"What is your Maharajah's name?" I asked my neighbor on the plank.
"Jihanbihar," he answered, giving a string of titles too that had no
particular bearing on the situation. They sounded like a page of the Old
"You observe that his favorite elephant is about to be stolen with the aid
of the Gray Mahatma!"
The fellow nodded, and the expression of his face was not exactly pleased;
he may have been one of a crowd that got cursed by the Mahatma for asking too
many impertinent questions.
"He has a reputation, that Mahatma, hasn't he?" I suggested. "You have
heard of the miracles that he performs?"
He nodded again.
"You see that he is talking to the chief mahout now? Take my word for it,
he is casting a spell on him! Would you like to have him cast a spell on you
He shook his head.
"Run swiftly then, and tell the Maharajah sahib to get a Brahman to
cancel the spell, and you will be rewarded. Go quickly."
He dropped from the plank and went off at a run just as the Mahatma turned
and saw him. The Mahatma had been whispering in the mahout's ear, and as his
eye met mine I laughed. For a moment he watched the man running, and then, as
if to demonstrate what a strange mixture of a man he was, he laughed back at
me. He acknowledged defeat instantly, and did not appear in the least annoyed
by it, but on the contrary appeared to accord me credit for outwitting him,
as undoubtedly I had.
India is not a democratic country. Nobody is troubled about keeping the
underworld in its place, so mahout or sweeper has the ear of majesty as
readily as any other man, if not even more so. And it would not make the
slightest difference now what kind of cock and bull story the mahout might
tell to the Maharajah. However wild it might be it would certainly include
the fact that two white men had ridden to Yasmini's palace on the Maharajah's
favorite elephant after having been fished out of the river by mahouts at the
elephant's bathing ghat.
It was the likeliest thing in the world that representations would be made
that very afternoon by telegraph to the nearest important British official,
who would feel compelled to make inquiries. The British Government can not
afford to have even unknown white men mysteriously made away with.
The Gray Mahatma took all that for granted and nodded comprehendingly. His
smile, as we neared Yasmini's palace gate, appeared to me to include a
perfect appreciation of the situation. He seemed to accept it as candidly as
he had acknowledged my frequent escapes the night before.
Ismail opened the gate without demur and Akbar sauntered in, being used to
palaces. He passed under the first arch into the second courtyard, coming to
a halt at a gate on the far side that was too small for his enormous bulk
where he proceeded to kneel without waiting for instructions.
"Do you feel proud?" the Mahatma asked me unexpectedly as he climbed off
Suspecting some sort of verbal trap I did not answer him.
"You are like this elephant. You are able to do irreparable damage if you
see fit. She was as apt as usual when she dubbed you Ganesha!"
He was working toward some point he intended to make, like one of those
pleasant-tongued attorneys flattering a witness before tying him up in a
knot, so I was careful to say nothing whatever. King came around the kneeling
elephant and joined us, leaning back against the beast and appraising the
Mahatma with his eyes half-closed.
"You're dealing with white men," King suggested. "Why don't you talk in
terms that we understand?"
It seemed difficult for the Mahatma to descend to that. He half-closed his
eyes in turn and frowned, as if hard put to it to simplify his thoughts
sufficiently — something like a mathematician trying to explain himself
to the kindergarten class.
"I could kill you," he said, looking straight at King.
"You are not the kind of man who should be killed," he went on.
"Did you ever hear the fable of the fox and the sour grapes?" King asked
him, and the Mahatma looked annoyed.
"Would you rather be killed?" he retorted.
"'Pon my soul, I'm inclined to leave that to the outcome," King answered.
"Death would mean investigation, and investigation discovery of that science
you gave us a glimpse of."
"If I was to let you go," the Mahatma began to argue.
"I would not go! Forward is the only way," King interrupted. "You've a
reason for not having us two men killed. What is it?"
"I have no reason whatever for preserving this one's life," the Mahatma
answered, glancing at me casually. "For reasons beyond my power of guessing
he seems to bear a charmed existence, but he has my leave to visit the next
world, and his departure would by no means inconvenience me. But you are
"How so?" King asked. "Mr. Ramsden is the man who would be inquired for.
The Indian Government, whose servant I no longer am, might ignore me, but the
multi-millionaire who is Mr. Ramsden's partner would spend millions and make
an international scandal."
"I am thinking of you, not of him. I am thinking you are honest," said the
Gray Mahatma, looking into King's eyes.
"So is he," King answered.
"I am wondering whether or not you are honest enough to trust me," said
the Gray Mahatma.
"Why certainly!" King answered. "If you would commit yourself I would
trust you. Why not?"
"But this man would not," said the Mahatma, nudging me as if I were the
"I trust my friend King," I retorted. "If he decides to trust you, I stand
back of him."
"Very well then, let us exchange promises."
"Suppose we go a little more cautiously and discuss them first," suggested
"I will promise both of you your life, your eventual freedom, and my
friendship. Will you promise me not to go in league with
"I'll agree to that unconditionally!" King assured him with a dry
"—not to try to learn the secret of the science—"
"Because if you should try I could never save your lives."
"Well, what else?"
"Will you take oath never to disclose the whereabouts of the entrance to
the caverns in which you were allowed to see the sciences?"
"I shall have to think that over."
"Furthermore, will you promise to take whatever means is pointed out to
you of helping India to independence?"
"What do you mean by independence?"
"I've been working for that ever since I cut my eye-teeth," answered King.
"So has every other British officer and civil servant who has any sense of
"Will you continue to work for it, and employ the means that shall be
pointed out to you?"
"Yes is the answer to the first part. Can't answer the second part until
I've studied the means."
"Will you join me in preventing that princess from throwing the world into
"Dunno about joining you. It's part of my business to prevent her little
game," King answered.
"She has proven herself almost too clever, even for us," said the Mahatma.
"She spied on us, and she hid so many witnesses behind a wall pierced with
holes that it would be impossible for us to make sure of destroying all of
them. And somewhere or other she has hidden an account of what she knows, so
that if anything should happen to her it would fall into the hands of the
Government and compel investigation."
"Wise woman!" King said smiling.
"Yes! But not so altogether wise. Hitherto we fooled her for all her
cleverness. Her price of silence was education in our mysteries, and we have
made the education incomprehensible."
"Then why do you want my help?"
"Because she has a plan now that is so magnificent in its audacity as to
baffle even our secret council!"
King whistled, and the Mahatma looked annoyed — whether with himself
or King I was not sure.
"That is what I have been hunting for three years — your secret
council. I knew it existed; never could prove it," said King.
"Can you prove it now?" asked the Mahatma with even more visible
"I think so. You'll have to help me."
"You or the Princess!" King answered. "Shall I join you or her?"
"Thou fool! There was a sheep who asked, 'Which shall I run with, tiger or
wolf?' Consider that a moment!"
King showed him the courtesy of considering it, and was silent for perhaps
two minutes, during which the mahout judged it opportune to whine forth his
own demands. But nobody took any notice of him.
"You seem check-mate to me," King said at last. "You daren't kill my
friend or me. You daren't make away with us. You daren't make away with the
Princess. The Princess and several of her women know enough of your secret to
be able to force your hand; so do my friend Mr. Ramsden and I. Mr. Ramsden
and I have seen sufficient in that madhouse underneath the temple to compel a
Government inquiry. Is it peace or war, Mahatma? Will you introduce me to
your secret council, or will you fight to a finish?"
"I would rather not fight with you, my young friend."
"Introduce me, then," King answered, smiling.
"You don't know what you ask — what that involves."
"But I propose to know," said King.
The Mahatma never seemed to mind acknowledging defeat.
"I see you are determined," he said quietly. "Determination, my young
friend, combined with ignorance, is a murderer nine times out of ten.
However, you do not understand that, and you are determined, I have no
authority to make such terms as you propose, but I will submit the matter to
those whom you desire to meet. Does that satisfy you?"
King looked immensely dissatisfied.
"I would rather be your friend than your enemy," he answered.
"So said light and darkness each to the other when they first met! You
shall have your answer presently. In the mean time will you try not to make
my task even more difficult than it already is?"
King laughed uncomfortably.
"Mahatma, I like you well enough, but no terms until I have your answer!
Sorry! I'd like to be friends with you."
"The pity of it is that though you are honestly determined you are bound
to fail," the Mahatma answered; and at that he dismissed the whole subject
with a motion of one hand, and turned toward Ismail, who was lurking about in
the shadows like a wolf.
The Mahatma sent the man to the door of the panch mahal with a
message that money was needed; and the mahout spent the next ten minutes in
loud praises of his kneeling elephant, presumably on the theory that "it pays
to advertise," for it is not only the West that worships at that shrine.
When Ismail came back with a tray on which were several little heaps of
money the mahout went into abject ecstasies of mingled jubilee and reverence.
His mouth betrayed unbelief and his eyes glinted avarice. His fingers
twitched with agonied anticipation, and he began to praise his elephant
again, as some people recite proverbs to keep themselves from getting too
The various heaps of money on the tray must have amounted to about fifty
dollars. The mahout spread out the end of his turban by way of begging bowl,
and the Mahatma shook all the money into it, so that Ismail gasped and the
mahout himself turned up his eyes in exquisite delirium.
"Go or you will be too late!" was all the Mahatma said to him, and the
mahout did not wait for a second command, but mounted his elephant's neck,
kicked the big brute up and rode away, in a hurry to be off before he should
wake up and discover that the whole adventure was a dream.
But he could not get away with it as easily as all that. Ismail was keeper
of the gate, and the gate was locked. Akbar doubtless could have broken down
the gate if so instructed, but even the East, which is never long on
gratitude, would hardly do that much damage after receiving such a royal
largesse. Ismail went to unlock the gate, and demanded his percentage, giving
it, though, the Eastern name, which means "the usual thing."
And the usual argument took place — I approached to listen to it
— the usual recriminations, threats, counterclaims, abuse, appeals to
various deaf deities, and finally concession — after Ismail had made
the all-compelling threat to tell the other mahouts how much the gift had
amounted to. I suppose it was instinct that suggested that idea. At any rate,
it worked and the mahout threw a handful of coins to him.
Thereat, of course, there was immediate, immense politeness on both sides.
Ismail prayed that Allah might make the mahout as potbellied and idle as his
elephant; and the mahout suggested to a dozen corruptible deities that Ismail
might be happier with a thousand children and wives who were true to him.
Whereat Ismail opened the gate, and Akbar helped himself liberally to
sugar-cane from a passing wagon; so that every one was satisfied except the
rightful owner of the sugar-cane, who cursed and wept and called Akbar an
honest rajah, by way I suppose of expressing his opinion of all the
tax-levying powers that be.
There happened to be a thing they call a "constabeel" going by, and the
owner of the sugar-cane appealed to him for justice and relief. So the
"constabeel" prodded Akbar's rump with his truncheon, and helped himself,
too, to sugar-cane by way of balancing accounts. And while the owner of the
sugar-cane was bellowing red doctrine about that, Ismail went out and helped
himself likewise, only more liberally, carrying in an armful of the stuff,
and slamming the gate in the faces of all concerned. In cynical enjoyment of
the blasphemy outside he sat down then in the shadow of the wall to chew the
cane and count the change extorted from the mahout.
"Behold India self-governed!" I said, turning to beckon through the arch
between the two courtyards.
But the Mahatma was gone! And unlike the Cheshire cat, he had not even
left a smile behind him — had not even left Athelstan King behind him.
The two had disappeared as silently and as utterly as if they had never been
I HUNTED about, looked around corners, searched the next
courtyard, and drew blank. Then I asked Ismail, and he mocked me.
"The Mahatma? You are like those fools who pursue virtue. There never was
"That mahout named you rightly just now," said I. "He knew your character
"That may be," Ismail answered, rising to his feet. "But he was on an
elephant where I could not reach him. You think you are a strong man? Feel of
He was old, but no mean adversary. Luckily for him he did not draw a
knife. I hugged the wind out of him, whirled him until he was dizzy and threw
him down into his dog's corner by the gate, not much the worse except for a
bruise or two.
"Now!" I said. "Which way went King sahib and the Gray Mahatma?"
"All ways are one, and the one way leads to her!"
That was all I could get out of him. So I took the one way, straight down
through the courtyards and under the arches, past the old black panther's
cage — the way that King and I had taken when we first arrived. But it
seemed like a year since I had trodden those ancient flagstones side by side
with King — more than a year! It seemed as if a dozen lifetimes
intervened. And it also occurred to me that I was growing famished and
desperately sleepy, and I knew that King must be in even worse condition. The
old, black panther was sleeping as I went by, and I envied him.
There was a choice of two ways when I reached the panch mahal, for
it was feasible to enter through the lower door, which was apparently
unguarded, and climb the stone stairway that wound inside the wall. However,
I chose the marble front steps, and barked my knuckles on the door at the
I was kept waiting several minutes, and then four women opened it in place
of the customary two; and instead of smiling, as on previous occasions, they
frowned, lining up across the threshold. They were older women than the
others had been and looked perfectly capable of showing fight; allowing for
their long pins and possible hidden weapons I would not have given ten cents
for my chance against them. So I asked for King and the Mahatma.
They pretended not to understand. They knew no Hindustani. My dialect of
Punjabi was as Greek to them. They knew nothing about my clothes, or the
suitcase that King and I shared between us and that, according to Yasmini,
had been carried by her orders to the palace. The words "King" and "Mahatma"
seemed to convey no meaning to them. They made it perfectly obvious that they
suspected me of being mad.
I began to suspect myself of the same thing! Feeling as sleepy as I did,
it was not unreasonable to suspect myself at any rate of dreaming; yet I had
sufficient power of reasoning left to argue that if those were dream-women
they would give way in front of me. So I stepped straight forward, and they
no more gave way than a she-bear will if you call on her when she is nursing
cubs. Two more women stepped out from behind the curtains with long slithery
daggers in their hands, and somehow I was not minded to test whether those
were dream-daggers or not.
It was a puzzle to know what to do. The one unthinkable thing would be to
leave King unsought for. Suddenly it occurred to me to try that door
underneath the steps; so I kissed my hand irreverently to the quarterguard of
harridans, and turned my back on them — which I daresay was the most
unwise move that I ever made in my whole life. I have done things that were
more disastrous in the outcome, but never anything more deserving of
Have you ever been tackled, tripped and hog-tied by women? Run rather than
They threw a rope over my shoulders from behind, and I felt the foot of
one termagant in the small of my back as she hauled taut. I spun round and
stepped forward to slacken the noose and free myself, and two more nooses
went over my head in swift succession. Another caught my right foot —
another my right hand! More women came, with more ropes. It was only a matter
of seconds before they were almost dragging me asunder as they hauled, two
hags to a rope, and every one of them straining as if the game were
There was nothing else to do, and plenty of inducement, so I did it. I
yelled. I sent my voice bellowing through those echoing halls to such tune
that if King were anywhere in the place he would have to hear me. But it did
me no good. They only produced a gag and added that to my discomfort, shoving
a great lump of rubber in my mouth and wrapping a towel over it so tightly
that I could hardly breathe.
Then came Yasmini, gorgeously amused, standing at the top of the steps
where the inner hall was raised a few feet above the outer, and ordering me
blindfolded as well as rendered dumb.
"For if he can see as well as he can roar he will presently know too
much," she explained sarcastically.
So they wrapped another towel over my eyes and pinned it with a cursed
export safety-pin that pierced clean through my scalp. And the harder I
struggled, the tighter they pulled on the ropes and the louder Yasmini
laughed, until I might as well have been on that rack that King and I saw in
the cavern underneath the temple.
"So strong Ganesha-ji!" she mocked. "So strong and yet so impotent!
Such muscles! Look at them! Can the buffalo hear, or are his ears stopped
A woman rearranged the head-towel to make sure that my ears were missing
nothing; after which Yasmini purred her pleasantest.
"O buffalo Ganesha, I would have you whipped to death if I thought that
would not anger Athelstan! What do you mistake me for? Me, who have been
twice a queen! That was a mighty jump from my window; and even as the buffalo
you swam, Ganesha! Buffalo, buffalo! Who but a buffalo would snatch my
Athelstan away from me, and then return alone! What have you done with him?
Hah! You would like to answer that you have done nothing with him —
buffalo, buffalo! He would never have left you willingly, nor you him —
you two companions who share one foolish little bag between you!
"Does he love you? Hope, Ganesha! Hope that he loves you! For unless he
comes to find you, Ganesha, all the horrors that you saw last night, and all
the deaths, and all the tortures shall be yours — with alligators at
last to abolish the last traces of you! Do you like snakes, Ganesha? Do you
like a madhouse in the dark? I think not. Therefore, Ganesha, you shall be
left to yourself to think a little while. Think keenly! Invent a means of
finding Athelstan and I will let you go free for his sake. But — fail
— to think — of a successful plan — Ganesha — and you
shall suffer in every atom of your big body! Bass! Take him away!"
I was frog-marched, and flung face-downward on to cushions, after which I
heard a door snap shut and had leisure to work myself free from the ropes and
gag and towels. It took time, for the hussies had drawn the cords until they
bit into the muscles, and maybe I was twenty minutes about getting loose.
Then, for ten minutes more I sat and chafed the rope-cuts, craving food,
examining the room, and wishing above all things that conscience would let me
fall asleep on the feathery, scented pillows with which the floor was strewn,
rather than stay awake on the off-chance of discovering where King might
It was practically a bare room, having walls of painted wood that sounded
solid when I made the circuit of the floor and tapped each panel in turn. But
that proved nothing, for even the door sounded equally solid; the folk who
built that palace used solid timber, not veneer, and as I found out afterward
the door was nearly a foot thick. On the floor I could make no impression
whatever by thumping, and there was no furniture except the pillows —
nothing that I could use for a weapon.
But there were the cotton ropes with which they had bound me, and before
doing anything else I knotted them all into one. I had no particular reason
for doing that beyond the general principle that one long rope is usually
better than a half-a-dozen short ones in most emergencies.
There was only one window, and that was perhaps two feet high, big enough,
that is, to scramble through, but practically inaccessible, and barred. The
only weapon I had was that infernal brass safety-pin that had held the towel
to my scalp, and I stuck that away in my clothes like a magpie hiding things
on general principles.
I began to wonder whether it would not be wisest after all to lie down and
sleep. But I was too hungry to sleep, and it was recognition of that fact
which produced the right idea.
Beyond doubt Yasmini realized that I was hungry. She had threatened me
with tortures, and was likely to inflict them if she should think that
necessary; but nothing seemed more unlikely than that she would keep me for
the present without food and water. It would be bad strategy, to say the
least of it. She had admitted that she did not want to offend King.
The more I considered that, the more worth while it seemed to bet on it;
and as I had nothing to bet with except will power and personal convenience,
I plunged with both and determined to stay awake as long as human endurance
could hold out.
There was only one way that food could possibly be brought into the room,
and that was through the massive teak-wood door. It was in the middle of the
wall, and opened inward; there were no bolts on the inside. Anybody opening
it cautiously would be able to see instantly all down the length of half that
wall, and possibly two thirds of the room as well.
It would have been hardly practical to stand against the door and hit at
the first head that showed, for then if the door should open suddenly, it
would strike me and give the alarm. There was nothing else for it but to
stand well back against the wall on the side of the door on which the hinges
were; and as that would make the range too long for quick action I had to
invent some other means of dealing with the owner of the first head than
jumping in and punching it.
There was nothing whatever to contrive a trap with but the cotton rope and
the safety-pin, but the safety-pin like Mohammed's Allah, "made all things
possible." I stuck that safety-pin in the woodwork and hung the noose in such
position that the least jerk would bring it down over an intruding head
— practised the stunt for ten or fifteen minutes, and then got well
back against the wall with the end of the line in hand, and waited.
I have read Izaak Walton, and continue unconvinced. I still class fishing
and golf together with tiddledywinks, and eschew all three as thoughtfully as
I avoid bazaars and "crushes" given by the ladies of both sexes. The rest of
that performance was too much like fishing with a worm to suit my
temperament, and although I caught more in the end than I ever took with rod
and line, the next half-hour was boredom pure and simple, multiplied to the
point of torture by intense yearning for sleep.
But patience sometimes is rewarded. I very nearly was asleep when the
sound of a bolt being drawn on the far side of the door brought every sense
to the alert with that stinging feeling that means blood spurting through
your veins after a spell of lethargy. The bolt was a long time drawing, as if
some one were afraid of making too much noise, and I had plenty of time to
make sure that my trap was in working order.
And when the door opened gingerly at last, a head inserted itself, my
noose fell, and I hauled taut, I don't know which was most surprised —
myself or the Gray Mahatma! I jerked the noose so tight that he could not
breathe, let alone argue the point. I reckon I nearly hanged him, for his
neck jammed against the door, and I did not dare let go for fear he might
withdraw himself and collapse on the wrong side. I wanted him inside,
and in a hurry.
He was about two-thirds unconscious when I seized him by his one long lock
of hair and hauled him in, shutting the door again and leaning my weight
against it, while I pried the noose free to save him from sure death. Those
cotton ropes don't render the way a hemp one would. And while I was doing
that a sickening, utterly unexpected sound announced that somebody outside
the door had cautiously shot the bolt again! The Mahatma and I were both
I sat the old fellow down on a cushion in a corner and chafed his neck
until the blood performed its normal office of revivifying him. And as he
slowly opened first one eye and then the other, instead of cursing me as I
expected, he actually smiled.
"The quality of your mercy was rather too well strained," he said in
English, "but I thank you for the offer nevertheless!"
"Offer?" I answered. "What offer have I made you?"
"A very friendly offer. But the penalty of being in the secret of our
sciences is that we may not die, except in the service of the cause.
Therefore, my friend, your goodwill fell on barren ground, for if you had
succeeded in killing me my obligation would have been held to pass to you,
and you would have suffered terribly."
"Who locked the door on us just now?" I asked him.
"I don't know," he answered, smiling whimsically.
"Very well," I said, "suppose you work one of your miracles! You and King
disappeared a while ago simply perfectly from right alongside me. Can you
repeat the process here and spirit me away?"
He shook his head.
"My friend, if your eyes had not been fixed on things unworthy of
consideration such as an elephant's rump and the theft of sugar-cane, you
would have seen us go."
"How did you persuade King to leave me standing there without a word of
warning?" I demanded.
"How were you persuaded into this place?" he retorted.
"You mean you gagged and bound him?"
He smiled again.
"Your friend was weak from having so nearly been drowned; nevertheless,
you overestimate my powers!"
"When I first met you, you gripped my hand," I answered. "I am reckoned a
strong man, yet I could not shift your hand a fraction of an inch. Now you
suggest that you are weaker than a half-drowned man. I don't understand
"Of course you don't. That is because you don't understand the form of
energy that I used on the first occasion. Unfortunately I can only use it
when arrangements have been made in advance. It is as mechanical as your
watch, only a different kind of mechanics — something, in fact, that
some of your Western scientists would say has not yet been invented."
"Well, where's King?" I asked him.
"Upstairs. He asked me to bring you. Now how can I?"
He smiled again with that peculiar whimsical helplessness that contrasted
so strangely with his former arrogance. He who had looked like a lion when we
first encountered him seemed now to be a meek and rather weak old man —
much weaker in fact than could be accounted for by the red ring that my noose
had made on his neck.
"Is King at liberty?" I demanded.
"And what do you call liberty?" he asked me blandly, as if he were really
curious to know my opinion on that subject.
"Can he come and go without molestation?"
"If he cares to run that risk, and is not caught. Try not to become
impatient with me! Anger is impotence! Explanations that do not explain are
part and parcel of all religions and most sciences; therefore why lose your
temper? Your friend is free to come and go, but must take his chance of being
caught. He pursues investigations."
"Where else than in this palace? Listen!"
Among all the phenomena of nature there is none more difficult to explain
than sound. Hitherto in that teak-lined room we had seemed shut off from the
rest of the world completely, for the door and walls were so thick and the
floor so solid that sound-waves seemed unable to penetrate. Yet now a noise
rather like sandpaper being chafed together began to assert itself so
distinctly as to seem almost to have its origin in the room. In a way it
resembled the forest noise when a breeze stirs the tree-tops at night —
irregular enough, and yet with a kind of pulse in it, increasing and
"You recognize that?" asked the Mahatma.
I shook my head.
"Veiled women, walking!"
"You mean the princesses have come?"
"A few, and their attendants."
"How many princesses?"
"Oh, not more than twenty. But each will bring at the least twenty
attendants, and perhaps a score of friends, each of whom in turn will have
her own attendants. And only the princesses and their friends will enter the
audience hall, which, however, will be surrounded by the attendants, whose
business it will be to see that no stranger, and above all no male shall see
"And if they were to catch Athelstan King up there?"
"That would be his last and least pleasant experience in this world!"
That was easy enough to believe. I had just had an experience of what
those palace women could do.
"She, who learned our secrets, will take care that none shall play that
trick on her," the Mahatma went on confidently. "These women will use
the audience hall she lent to us. Their plan is to control the new movement
in India, and their strength consists in secrecy. They will take all
"Do you mean to tell me," I demanded, "that as you sit here now you are
impotent? Can't you work any of your tricks?"
"Those are not tricks, my friend, they are sciences. Can your Western
scientists perform to order without their right environment and
"Then you can't break that door down, or turn loose any magnetic
"You speak like a superstitious fool," he retorted calmly. "The answer is
"That," said I, "is all that I was driving at. Do you see this?" And I
held my right fist sufficiently close to his nose to call urgent attention to
it. "Tell me just what transpired between you and King from the time when you
disappeared out there in the courtyard until you came in here alone!"
"No beating in the world could make me say a word," he answered calmly.
"You would only feel horribly ashamed."
I believed him, and sat still, he looking at me in a sort of way in which
a connoisseur studies a picture with his eyelids a little lowered.
"Nevertheless," he went on presently, "I observe that I have misjudged you
in some respects. You are a man of violent temper, which is cave-man
foolishness; yet you have prevailing judgment, which is the beginning of
civilization. There is no reason why I should not tell you what you desire to
know, even though it will do you no good."
"I listen," I answered, trying to achieve that air of humility with which
chelas listen to their gurus.
That was partly because I really respected the man in a way; and partly
because there was small harm in flattering him a little, if that could induce
him to tell me the more.
"Know then," he began, "that it was my fault that the Princess Yasmini was
able to play that trick on us. It was to me that she first made the proposal
that we should use her audience hall for our conference. It was I who
conveyed that proposal to those whom it concerned, and I who persuaded them.
It was through my lack of diligence that the hiding-place was overlooked in
which she and certain of her women lay concealed, so that they overheard some
of our secrets.
"For that I should have been condemned to death at once, and it would have
been better if that had been done.
"Yet for fifty years I have been a man of honor. And although it is one of
our chief requirements that we lay aside such foolishness as sentiment,
nevertheless the seeds of sentiment remained, and those men were loath to
enforce the penalty on me, who had taught so many of them.
"So they compromised, which is inevitably fatal. For compromise bears
within itself the roots of right and wrong, so that whatever good may come of
it must nevertheless be ruined by inherent evil. I bade them use me for their
studies, and have done with compromise, but being at fault my authority was
gone, so they had their way.
"They imposed on me the task of making use of the Princess Yasmini, and of
employing her by some means to make a beginning of the liberation of India.
And she sought to make use of me to get Athelstan King into her clutches.
Moreover, believing that her influence over us was now too great to be
resisted, she demanded that Athelstan King and yourself should be shown
sciences; and I consented, believing that thereby your friend might be
convinced, and would agree to go to the United States to shape public
"Thereafter you know what happened. You know also that, because the seeds
of compromise were inherent in the plan, my purpose failed. Instead of
consenting to go to the United States Athelstan King insisted on learning our
sciences. You and he escaped, by a dive from the upper window of this palace
that would not have disgraced two fish-hawks, and although you never guessed
it, by that dive you sentenced me to death.
"For I had to report your escape to those whom it most concerned. And at
once it was obvious to them that you were certain to tell what you had
"Nevertheless, there was one chance remaining that you might both be
drowned; and one chance that you might be recaptured before you could tell
any one what you had seen. And there was a third chance that, if you should
be recaptured, you might be persuaded to promise never to reveal what little
of our secrets you already know. In that case, your lives might be spared,
although not mine.
"So it was laid upon me to discover where you were, and to bring you back
if possible. And on the polished table in that cave in which you saw Benares
and Bombay and London and New York, I watched you swim down the river until
you were rescued by the elephants.
"So then I went to meet you and bring you back."
"What if we had refused?"
"That elephant you rode — hah! One word from me, and the mob would
have blamed you for the damage. They would have pulled you from the elephant
and beaten you to death. Such processes are very simple to any one who
understands mob-passions. Just a word — just a hint — and the
rest is inevitable."
"But you say you are under sentence of death. What if you should refuse to
"Why refuse? What good would that do?"
"But you were at liberty. Why not run away?"
"Whither? Besides, should I, who have enforced the penalty of death on so
many fools, disloyal ones and fanatics, reject it for myself when I myself
have failed? There is nothing unpleasant about death, my friend, although the
manner of it may be terrible. But even torture is soon over; and the sting is
gone from torture when the victim knows that the cause of science is thereby
being advanced. They will learn from my agonies."
"Suit yourself!" I urged him. "Each to his own amusement. What happened
after I turned to watch the elephant at the gate?"
"Those on whom the keeping of our secret rests considered that none would
believe you, even if you were to tell what you have seen. But Athelstan King
is different. For many years the Indian Government has accepted his bare
word. Moreover, we knew that we can also accept his word. He is a man whose
promises are as good as money, as the saying is.
"So after you turned aside to watch an elephant, those who were watching
us opened a hidden door and Athelstan King was made prisoner from behind.
They carried him bound and gagged into a cavern such as those you visited;
and there he was confronted by the Nine Unknown, who asked him whether or not
he will promise never to reveal what he had seen."
The Mahatma paused.
"Did he promise?" I asked him.
"He refused. What was more, he dared them to make away with him, saying
that the mahout who had accompanied us hither would already have informed the
Maharajah Jihanbihar, who would certainly report to the Government. And I,
standing beside him, confirmed his statement."
"You seem to have acted as prosecuting attorney against yourself!" I
"No, I simply told the truth," he answered. "We who calculate in terms of
eternity and infinity have scant use for untruth. I told the Nine Unknown the
exact truth — that this man Athelstan King might not be killed, because
of the consequences; and that whatever he might say to certain officers of
the Government would be believed. So they let him go again, and set midnight
to-night as the hour of the beginning of my death."
"Did King know that his refusal to promise entailed your death?" I
He shook his head.
"Why didn't you tell him?"
"Because it would not have been true, my friend. I had already been
sentenced to death. His promise could make no possible difference to my fate.
They let him go, and ordered me to present myself at midnight; so I went with
him, to preserve him from the cobras in a tunnel through which he must
"I brought him into this palace by hidden ways, and after I had shown him
the audience hall, where these princesses are to meet, he asked me to go and
find you — that being easier for me than for him, because none in this
palace would be likely to question me, whereas he would be detected instantly
and watched, even if not prevented. And when I had found you — and you
nearly killed me — some one, as you know, locked the door and shut us
in here together. It is all one to me," he added with a shrug of the
shoulders; "I have only until midnight at any event, and it makes small
difference where I spend the intervening hours. Perhaps you would like to
sleep a little? Why not? Sleep, and I will keep watch."
But, badly though I needed sleep, that sort of death-watch did not quite
appeal. Besides, gentle, and honest and plausible though the Gray Mahatma now
seemed, there was still something within me that rebelled at trusting him
entirely. He had been all along too mysterious, and mystery is what irritates
most of us more than anything else. It needs a man like Athelstan King to
recognize the stark honesty of such a man as that Gray Mahatma; and Athelstan
King was not there to set the example. I preferred to keep awake by
continuing to question him.
"And d'you mean that those devils will deliberately torture you to death
after you surrender voluntarily?" I asked.
"They are not devils," he answered solemnly.
"But they'll torture you?"
"What is called torture can hardly fail to accompany the process they will
put me through — especially if I am to be honored as I hope. For a long
time we have sought to make one experiment for which no suitable subject
could be found. For centuries it has been believed that a certain scientific
step is possible; but the subject on whom the experiment is tried must be one
who knows all our secrets and well understands the manipulation of vibrations
of the atmosphere. It is seldom that such an one has to be sentenced to
death. And it is one of our laws that death shall never be imposed on any one
not deserving of it. There are many, myself included, who would cheerfully
have offered ourselves for that experiment at any time, had it been
"So you're really almost contented with the prospect?" I suggested.
"No, my friend. I am discontented. And for this reason. It may be that the
nine unknown, who are obliged by the oath of our order to be stern and devoid
of sentiment, will discover how pleased I would be to submit myself to that
experiment. And in that case, in place of that experiment they would feel
obliged merely to repeat some test that I have seen a dozen times."
"And throw your body to the alligators afterward?"
"In that case, yes. But if what I hope takes place, there will be nothing
left for the alligators — nothing but bones without moisture in them
that will seem ten centuries old."
THE Gray Mahatma sat still, contemplating with apparent
equanimity his end that should begin at midnight, and I sat contemplating
him, when suddenly a new idea occurred to me.
"You intend to surrender to your executioners at midnight?" I asked
He nodded gravely.
"Suppose she keeps us locked in here; what then? You say you can't use
your science to get out of here. What if you're late for the
"You forget," he said with a deprecating gesture, "that they can see
exactly where I am at any time! If they enter the cavern of vision and turn
on the power they can see us now, instantly. They know perfectly well that my
intention is to surrender to them. Therefore they will take care to make my
escape from this place possible."
Five minutes later the door opened suddenly, and six women marched in. Two
of them had wave-edged daggers, two had clubs, and the other two brought food
and water. It was pretty good food, and there was enough of it for two; but
the women would not say a word in answer to my questions.
They set the food and water down and filed out one by one, the last one
guarding the retreat of all the rest and slipping out backward, pulling the
door shut after her. Whereat I offered the Mahatma food and drink, but he
refused the hot curry and only accepted a little water from the brass
"They will feed me special food to-night, for I shall need my strength,"
he explained; but the explanation was hardly satisfying.
I did not see how he could be any stronger later on for having let himself
grow weaker in the interval. Nevertheless, I have often noticed this —
that the East can train athletes by methods absolutely opposite to those
imposed by trainers in the West, and it may be that their asceticism is based
on something more than guesswork. I ate enormously, and he sat and watched me
with an air of quiet amusement. He seemed to grow more and more friendly all
the time, and to forget that he had made several attempts on my life,
although his yellow eyes and lionlike way of carrying his head still gave you
an uncomfortable feeling, not of mistrust but of incomprehension.
I began to realize how accurately King had summed him up; he was an
absolutely honest man, which was why he was dangerous. His standards of
conduct and motives were utterly different from ours, and he was honest
enough to apply them without compromise or warning, that was all.
I was curious about his death sentence, and also anxious to keep awake, so
I questioned him further, asking him point blank what kind of experiment they
were going to try on him, and what would be the use of it. He meditated for
about five minutes before answering:
"Is it within your knowledge that those who make guns seek ever to make
them powerful enough to penetrate the thickest armor; and that the men who
make armor seek always to make it strong enough to resist the most powerful
guns, so that first the guns are stronger, and then the armor, and then the
guns and then the armor again, until nations groan beneath the burden of
extravagance? You know that?
"Understand, then, that that is but imitation of a higher law. A fragment
of the force that we control is greater than the whole power of all the guns
in the world, and forever we are seeking the knowledge of how to protect
ourselves against it, so that we may safely experiment with higher potencies.
As we learn the secret of safety we increase the power, and then learn more
safety, and again increase the power. Perpetually there comes a stage at
which we dare not go forward — yet — because we do not yet know
what the result of higher potencies will be on our own bodies. Do you
understand me? So. There will be an experiment to-night to ascertain the
utmost limit of our present ability to resist the force."
"You mean they'll try the force on you?"
"Why not use an alligator? There are lots of creatures that die harder
than a human being."
"It must be one who understands," he answered. "Not even a neophyte would
do. It must be one of iron courage, who will resist to the last, enduring
agony rather than letting in death that would instantly end the agony. It
must be one who knows the full extent of all our knowledge, and can therefore
apply all our present resources of resistance, so that the very outside edge
of safety, as it were, may be measured accurately."
"And how long is the process likely to last?" I asked him.
"Who knows?" he answered. "Possibly three days, or longer. They will feed
me scientifically, and will increase the potencies gradually, in order to
observe the exact effects at different stages. And some of the more painful
stages they will repeat again and again, because the greater the pain the
greater the difficulty of registering exact degrees of resistance. The higher
vibrations are not by any means always the most painful, any more than the
brightest colors or the highest notes are always the most beautiful."
"Then you are to use your knowledge of resistance against their knowledge
of force — is that it?"
"Isn't there a chance then that you may hold out to a point that will
satisfy them? A point, I mean, at which you'll be more useful to them alive
than dead? Surely if you should live and tell them all about it that would
serve the purpose better than to have you dead and silent forever?"
He smiled like a school teacher turning down a promising pupil's
"They will vibrate every atom of flesh and every drop of moisture from my
bones before they have finished," he answered, "and they will do it as
gradually as possible seeking to ascertain exactly the point at which human
life ceases to persist. My part will be to retain my faculties to the very
end, in order to exercise resistance to the last. So a great deal depends on
my courage. It is possible that this experiment may carry science forward to
a point where it commences a new era, for if we can learn to survive the
higher potencies, a whole new realm will lie before us awaiting
"And if you refuse?"
"A dog's death!"
"Have they no use for mercy?"
"Surely. But mercy is not treason. It would be treason to the cause to let
me live. I failed. I let the secret out. I must die. That is the law.
If they let me live, the next one who failed would quote the precedent, and
within a century or so a new law of compromise would have crept in. Our
secrets would be all out, and the world would use our knowledge to destroy
itself. No. They show their mercy by making use of me, instead of merely
throwing my dead carcass to the alligators."
"If you will tell me your real name I will tell them at Johns Hopkins
about your death, and perhaps they will inscribe your record on some roll of
martyrs," I suggested.
I think that idea tempted him, for his eyes brightened and grew strangely
softer for a moment. He was about to speak, but at that moment the door
opened again, and things began to occur that drove all thought of Johns
Hopkins from our minds.
About a dozen women entered this time. They did not trouble to tie the
Mahatma, but they bound me as the Philistines did Samson, and then threw a
silken bag over my head by way of blindfold. The bag would have been
perfectly effective if I had not caught it in my teeth as they drew it over
my shoulders. It did not take long to bite a hole in it, nor much longer to
move my head about until I had the hole in front of my right eye, after which
I was able to see fairly well where they were leading me.
Women of most lands are less generous than men to any one in their power.
Men would have been satisfied to let me follow them along or march in front
of them, provided I went fast enough to suit them, but those vixens hardly
treated me as human. Perhaps they thought that unless they beat, shoved,
prodded and kicked me all the way along those corridors and up the gilded
stairs I might forget who held the upper hand for the moment; but I think
not. I think it was simply sex-venom — the half-involuntary vengeance
that the under-dog inflicts on the other when positions are reversed. When
India's women finally break purdah and enter politics openly, we shall see
more cruelty and savagery, for that reason, than either the French or Russian
terrors had to show.
I was bruised and actually bleeding in a dozen places when they hustled me
down a corridor at last, and crowded me into a narrow anteroom, where the two
harridans who had handled me hardest had the worst of it. I gave them what in
elephant stables is known as the "squeeze," crushing them to right and left
against projecting walls; whereat they screamed, and I heard the reproving
voice of the Mahatma just behind me:
"Violence is the folly of beasts. Patience and strength are one!"
But they were not sticking pins into his ribs and thighs to humiliate and
discourage him. He was being led by either hand, and cooed to softly in the
sort of way that members of the Dorcas Guild would treat a bishop. It was
easy enough for him to feel magnanimous. I managed to tread hard on one foot,
and to squeeze two more women as they shoved me through a door into a vast
audience hall, and the half-suppressed screams were music in my ears. I don't
see why a woman who uses pins on a prisoner should be any more immune than a
man from violent retaliation.
When they had shut the door they stripped the silk bag off over my head
and holding me by the arms, four on either side, dragged me to the middle of
a hall that was at least as large as Carnegie Hall in New York, and two or
three thousand times as sumptuous.
I stood on a strip of carpet six feet wide, facing a throne that faced the
door I had entered by. The throne was under a canopy, and formed the center
of a horseshoe ring of gilded chairs, on every one of which sat a heavily
veiled woman. Except that they were marvelously dressed in all the colors of
the rainbow and so heavily jeweled that they flashed like the morning dew,
there was nothing to identify any of the women except one. She was Yasmini.
And she sat on the throne in the center, unveiled, unjeweled, and content to
outshine all of them without any kind of artificial aid.
She sat under a hard white light directed from behind a lattice in the
wall that would have exaggerated the slightest imperfection of looks or
manner; and she looked like a fairy-book queen — like the queen you
used to think of in the nursery when your aunt read stories to you and the
illustrated Sunday supplements had not yet disillusioned you as to how queens
wear their hats.
She was Titania, with a touch of Diana the Huntress, and decidedly
something of Athena, goddess of wisdom, clothed in flowing cream that showed
the outlines of her figure, and with sandals on her bare feet. Not a diamond.
Not a jewel of any kind. Her hair was bound up in the Grecian fashion and
shone like yellow gold.
Surely she seemed to have been born for the very purpose of presiding.
Perhaps she was the only one who was at ease, for the others shifted
restlessly behind their veils and had that vague, uncertain air that goes
with inexperience — although one woman, larger looking than the rest,
and veiled in embroidered black instead of colors, sat on a chair near the
throne with a rather more nervy-looking outline. There were more than a
hundred women in there all told.
Yasmini's change of countenance at sight of my predicament was
instantaneous. I don't doubt it was her fault that I had been mistreated on
the way up, for these women had seen me bound by her orders and mocked by her
a couple of hours previously. But now she saw fit to seem indignant at the
treatment I had suffered, and she made even the ranks of veiled princesses
shudder as she rose and stormed at my captors, giving each word a sort of
"Shall a guest of mine suffer in my house?"
One of the women piped up with a complaint against me. I had trodden on
her foot and crushed her against a door-jamb.
"Would he had slain you!" she retorted. "She-dog! Take her away! I will
punish her afterward! Who stuck pins into him? Speak, or I will punish all of
None owned up, but three or four of them who had not been able to come
near enough to do me any damage betrayed the others, so she ordered all
except four of them out of the room to await punishment at her convenience.
And then she proceeded to apologize to me with such royal grace and apparent
sincerity that I wondered whom she suspected of overhearing her. Wondering,
my eyes wandering, I noticed the woman veiled in black. She was an elderly
looking female, rather crouched up in her gorgeous shawl as if troubled with
rheumatism, and neither her hands nor her feet were visible, both being
hidden in the folds of the long sari.
The next instant Yasmini flew into a passion because the Mahatma and I
were kept standing. The Mahatma was not standing, as a matter of fact; he had
already squatted on the floor beside me. The women brought us stools, but the
Mahatma refused his. Thinking I might be less conspicuous sitting than
standing I sat down on my stool, whereat Yasmini began showering the women
with abuse for not having supplied me with better garments. Considering the
long swim, the dusty ride on an elephant, and two fights with women, during
which they had been ripped nearly into rags, the clothes weren't
So they brought me a silken robe that was woven all over with pictures of
the Indian gods. And I sat feeling rather like a Roman, with that gorgeous
toga wrapped around me; I might have been bearing Rome's ultimatum to the
Amazons, supposing those bellicose ladies to have existed in Rome's day.
But it was presently made exceedingly clear to me that Yasmini and not I
was deliverer of ultimatums. She had the whole future of the world doped out,
and her golden voice proceeded to herald a few of the details in mellifluous
"Princesses," she began, although doubtless some of them were not
princesses, "this holy and benign Mahatma has been sentenced to die to-night,
by those who resent his having trusted women with royal secrets. He is too
proud to appeal for mercy; too indifferent to his own welfare to seek to
avoid the unjust penalty. But there are others who are proud, and who are not
"We women are too proud to let this Gray Mahatma die on our account! And
it shall not be said of us that we consented to the death of the man who gave
us our first glimpse of the ancient mysteries! I say the Gray Mahatma shall
not die to-night!"
That challenge rang to the roof, and the women fluttered and thrilled to
it. I confess that it thrilled me, for I did not care to think of the
Mahatma's death, having come rather to like the man. The only person in the
hall who showed no trace of the interest was the Mahatma himself, who
squatted on the carpet close beside me as stolid and motionless as a bronze
idol, with his yellow lion's eyes fixed on Yasmini straight ahead of him.
"These men, who think themselves omnipotent, who own the secret of the
royal sciences," Yasmini went on, "are no less human than the rest of us. If
I alone had learned the key to their secrets, they might have made an end of
me, but there were others, and they did not know how many others! Now there
are more; and not only women, but men! And not only men, but known men! Men
who are known to the Government! Men whom they dare not try to make away
"It is true that if they should destroy the Gray Mahatma none would
inquire for him, for he left the world behind him long ago, and none knows
his real name or the place he can from. But that is not so in the case of
these other men, one of whom sits beside him now. Already Maharajah
Jihanbihar has inquired by telegraph as to their names and their business
here, and the Government agents will be here within a day or two. Those two
white men must be accounted for. Let them, then, account to us for the Gray
I glanced sideways at the Gray Mahatma. He seemed perfectly indifferent.
He was not even interested in the prospect of reprieve. I think his thoughts
were miles away, although his eyes stared straight ahead at Yasmini. But he
was interested in something, and I received the impression that he was
waiting for that something to happen. His attitude was almost that of a
telegraphist listening for sounds that have a meaning for him, but none for
the common herd. And all at once I saw him nod, and beckon with a crooked
There was nobody in that hall whom he was beckoning to. He was not nodding
to Yasmini. I saw then that his eyes, although they looked straight at her,
were focused beyond her for infinity. And there came to mind that chamber in
the solid rock below the Tirthankers' temple in which the granite table stood
on which whoever knew the secret could see anything, anywhere! I believe that
I am as sane as you, who read this, and I swear that it seemed reasonable to
me at that moment that the Gray Mahatma knew he was visible to watchers in
that cavern, and that he was signaling to them to come and rescue him —
from life, for the appointed death!
But Yasmini seemed not to have noticed any signaling, and if she did she
certainly ignored it. Perhaps she believed that her hornet's nest of women
could stand off any invasion or interference from without. At any rate, she
went on unfolding her instructions to destiny with perfectly sublime
"It is only we women who can arouse India from the dream of the Kali-
Yug. It is only in a free India that the Royal sciences can ever be
stripped of their mystery. India is chained at present by opinions. Therefore
opinions must be burst or melted! Melting is easier! It is hearts that melt
opinions! Let these men, therefore, take this Gray Mahatma with them to the
United States and let them melt opinions there! Let them answer to us for the
Mahatma's life, and to us for the work they do yonder!
"And lest they feel that they have been imposed upon — that they are
beggars sent to beg in behalf of beggars — let us pay them royally! Lo,
there sits one of these men beside the Gray Mahatma. I invite you, royal
women, to provide him with the wherewithal for that campaign to which we have
appointed him and his friend!"
She herself set the example by throwing a purse at me — a leather
wallet stuffed full of English banknotes, and the others had all evidently
come prepared, for the room rained money for about two minutes! Purses fell
on the Mahatma and on me in such profusion that surely Midas never felt more
opulent — although the Mahatma took no notice of them even when one hit
him in the face.
There were all kinds of purses, stuffed with all kinds of money, but
mostly paper money; some, however, had gold in them, for I heard the gold
jingle, and the darned things hurt you when they landed like a rock on some
part of your defenseless anatomy. Take them on the whole, those women made
straight shooting, but not even curiosity was strong enough to make me pick
up one purse and count its contents.
I rose and bowed acknowledgment without intending to commit myself, and
without touching any of the purses, which would have been instantly
interpreted as signifying acceptance. But I sat down again pretty promptly,
for I had no sooner got to my feet than the woman in black got up too, and
throwing aside the embroidered sari disclosed none other than
Athelstan King looking sore-eyed from lack of sleep and rather weak from all
he had gone through, but humorously determined, nevertheless.
Yasmini laughed aloud. Evidently she was in the secret. But nobody else
had known, as the flutter of excitement proved. I think most of the women
were rather deliciously scandalized, although some of them were so imbued
with ancient prejudices that they drew their own veils all the closer and
seemed to be trying to hide behind one another. In fact, any one interested
in discovering which were the progressives and which the reactionaries in
that assembly could have made a good guess in that minute, although it might
not have done him much good unless he had a good memory for the colors and
patterns of saris. A woman veiled in the Indian fashion is not easy to
But before they could make up their minds whether to resent or applaud the
trick that King had played on them with Yasmini's obvious collaboration, King
was well under way with a speech that held them spellbound. It would have
held any audience spellbound by its sheer, stark manliness. It was straighter
from the shoulder than Yasmini's eloquence, and left absolutely nothing to
imagination. Blunt, honest downrightness, that was the key of it, and it took
away the breath of all those women used to the devious necessities of purdah
"My friend and I refuse," he said, and paused to let them understand that
thoroughly. "We refuse to accept your money."
Yasmini, who prided herself on her instantly ready wit, was too astonished
to retort or to try to stop him. It was clear at a glance that she and King
had had some sort of conference while the Mahatma and I were locked up
together, and she had evidently expected King to fall in line and accept the
trust imposed on him. Even now she seemed to think that he might be coming at
concession in his own way, for her face had a look of expectancy. But King
had nothing in his bag of surprises except disillusion.
"You see," he went on, "we can no longer be compelled. We might be killed,
but that would bring prompt punishment. Maharajah Jihanbihar has already
started inquiries about us, by telegraph, which, as you know, goes swiftly.
We or else our slayers will have to be produced alive presently. So we refuse
to accept orders or money from any one. But as for the Mahatma — we
accord him our protection. There is only one power we recognize as able to
impose death penalties. We repudiate all usurpation of that power. If the
Mahatma thinks it will be safer in the United States, my friend and I will
see that he gets there, at our expense.
"It was in my mind," he went on, "to drive a hard bargain with the
Mahatma. I was going to offer him protection in return for knowledge. But it
is not fair to drive bargains with a man so closely beset as he is. Therefore
I offer him protection without terms."
With that he tossed the black sari aside and strode down the narrow
carpet to where the Mahatma sat beside me, giving Yasmini a mere nod of
courtesy as he turned his back on her. And until King reached us, the Mahatma
squatted there beckoning one crooked forefinger, like a man trying to coax a
snake out of its hole. King stood there smiling and looked down into his
eyes, which suddenly lost their look of staring into infinity. He recognized
King, and actually smiled.
"Well spoken!" he said rather patronizingly. "You are brave and honest.
Your Government is helpless, but you and your friend shall live because of
that offer you just made to me."
Yasmini was collecting eyes behind King's back, and it needed no expert to
know that a hurricane was cooking; but King, who knew her temper well and
must have been perfectly aware of danger, went on talking calmly to the
"You're reprieved too, my friend."
The Mahatma shook his head.
"Your Government is powerless. Listen!"
At that moment I thought he intended us to listen to Yasmini, who was
giving orders to about a dozen women, who had entered the hall through a door
behind the throne. But as I tried to catch the purport of her orders I heard
another sound that, however distant, is as perfectly unmistakable as the boom
of a bell, for instance, or any other that conveys its instant message to the
mind. If you have ever heard the roar of a mob, never mind what mob, or
where, or which language it roared in, you will never again mistake that
sound for anything else.
"They have told the people," said the Mahatma. "Now the people will tear
the palace down unless I am released. Thus I go free to my assignation."
We were not the only ones who recognized that tumult. Yasmini was almost
the first to be aware of it; and a second after her ears had caught the
sound, women came running in with word from Ismail that a mob was thundering
at the gate demanding the Mahatma. A second after that the news had spread
all through the hall, and although there was no panic there was perfectly
unanimous decision what to do. The mob wanted the Mahatma. Let it have him!
They clamored to have the Mahatma driven forth!
King turned and faced Yasmini again at last, and their eyes met down the
length of that long carpet. He smiled, and she laughed back at him.
"Nevertheless," said the Mahatma, laying a hand on King's shoulder, and
reaching for me with his other hand, "she is no more to be trusted than the
lull of the typhoon. Come with me."
And with an arm about each of us he started to lead the way out through
the maze of corridors and halls.
He was right. She was not to be trusted. She had laughed at King, but the
laugh hid desperation, and before we reached the door of the audience hall at
least a score of women pounced on King and me to drag us away from the
Mahatma and make us prisoners again. And at that the Mahatma showed a new
phase of his extraordinary character.
I was well weary by that time of being mauled by women. Suddenly the
Mahatma seized my arm, and gave tongue in a resounding, strange, metallic
voice such as I never heard before. It brought the whole surging assembly to
rigid attention. It was a note of command, alarm, announcement, challenge,
and it carried in its sharp reverberations something of the solemnity of an
opening salvo of big guns. You could have heard a pin drop.
"I go. These two come with me. Shall I wait and let the mob come in to
fetch me forth?"
But Yasmini had had time now in which to recover her self-possession, and
she was in no mood to be out-generaled by any man whom she had once tricked
so badly as to win his secrets from him. Her ringing laugh was an answering
challenge, as she stood with one hand holding an arm of the throne in the
attitude of royal arrogance.
"Good! Let the mob come! I, too, can manage mobs!"
Her voice was as arresting as his, although hers lacked the clamorous
quality. There was no doubting her bravery, nor her conviction that she could
deal with any horde that might come surging through the gates. But she was
not the only woman in the room by more than ninety-nine and certainly
ninety-nine of them were not her servants, but invited guests whom she had
coaxed from their purdah strongholds partly by the lure of curiosity and
partly by skilful playing on their new-born aspirations.
Doubtless her own women knew her resourcefulness and they might have lined
up behind her to resist the mob. But not those others! They knew too well
what the resulting reaction would be, if they should ever be defiled by such
surging "untouchables" as clamored at the gate for a sight of their beloved
Mahatma. To be as much as seen by those casteless folk within doors was such
an outrage as never would be forgiven by husbands all too glad of an excuse
for clamping tighter yet the bars of tyranny.
There was a perfect scream of fear and indignation. It was like the clamor
of a thousand angry parrots, although there was worse in it than the hideous
anger of any birds. Humanity afraid outscandals, outshames anything.
Yasmini, who would no more have feared the same number of men than if they
had been trained animals, knew well enough that she had to deal now with
something as ruthless as herself, with all her determination but without her
understanding. It was an education to see her face change, as she stood and
eyed those women, first accepting the challenge, because of her own
indomitable spirit, then realizing that they could not be browbeaten into
bravery, as men often can be, but that they must be yielded to if they were
not to stampede from under her hand. She stood there reading them as a
two-gun man might read the posse that had summoned him to surrender; and she
deliberately chose surrender, with all the future chances that entailed,
rather than the certain, absolute defeat that was the alternative. But she
carried a high hand even while surrendering.
"You are afraid, all you women?" she exclaimed with one of her golden
laughs. "Well — who shall blame you? This is too much to ask of you so
soon. We will let the Mahatma go and take his friends with him. You may go!"
she said, nodding regally to us three.
But that was not enough for some of them. The she-bear with her cubs in
Springtime is a mild creature compared to a woman whose ancient prejudices
have been interfered with, and a typhoon is more reasonable. Half-a-dozen of
them screamed that two of us were white men who had trespassed within the
purdah, and that we should be killed.
"Come!" urged the Mahatma, tugging at King and me. We went out of that
hall at a dead run with screams of "Kill them! Kill them! Kill them!"
shrilling behind us. And it may be that Yasmini conceded that point too, or
perhaps she was unable to prevent, for we heard swift footsteps following,
and I threw off that fifteen thousand dollar toga in order to be able to run
The Mahatma seemed to know that palace as a rat knows the runs among the
tree-roots, and he took us down dark passages and stairs into the open with a
speed that, if it did not baffle pursuit, at any rate made it easier for
pursuers to pretend to lose us. Yasmini was no fool. She probably called the
We emerged into the same courtyard, where the marble stairs descended to
the pool containing one great alligator. And we hurried from court to court
to the same cage where the panther pressed himself against the bars,
simultaneously showing fangs at King and me, and begging to have his ears
rubbed. The Mahatma opened the cage-door, again using no key that I could
detect, although it was a padlock that he unfastened and shoved the brute to
one side, holding him by the scruff of the neck while King and I made swift
tracks for the door at the back of the cage.
But this time we did not go through the tunnel full of rats and cobras.
There was another passage on the same level with the courtyard that led from
dark chamber to chamber until we emerged at last through an opening in the
wall behind the huge image of a god into the gloom of the Tirthankers' temple
— not that part of it that we had visited before, but another section
fronting on the street.
And we could hear the crowd now very distinctly, egging one another on to
commit the unforgivable offense and storm a woman's gates. They were shouting
for the Gray Mahatma in chorus; it had grown into a chant already, and when a
crowd once turns its collective yearnings into a single chant, it is only a
matter of minutes before the gates go down, and blood flows, and all those
outrages occur that none can account for afterward.
As long as men do their own thinking, decency and self-restraint are
uppermost, but once let what the leaders call a slogan usher in the crowd-
psychology, and let the slogan turn into a chant, and the Gadarene swine
become patterns of conduct that the wisest crowd in the world could improve
itself by imitating.
"Think! Think for yourselves!" said the Gray Mahatma, as if he recognized
the thoughts that were occurring to King and me.
Then, making a sign to us to stay where we were, he left us and strode out
on to the temple porch, looking down on the street that was choked to the
bursting point with men who sweated and slobbered as they swayed in time to
the chant of "Mahatma! O Mahatma! Come to us, Mahatma!"
King and I could see them through the jambs of the double-folding temple
The Mahatma stood looking down at them for about a minute before they
recognized him. One by one, then by sixes, then by dozens they grew aware of
him; and as that happened they grew silent, until the whole street was more
still than a forest. They held their breath, and let it out in sibilant
whispers like the voice of a little wind moving among leaves; and he did not
speak until they were almost aburst with expectation.
"Go home!" he said then sternly. "Am I your property that ye break gates
to get me? Go home!"
And they obeyed him, in sixes, in dozens, and at last in one great
THE Gray Mahatma stood watching the crowd until the last
sweating nondescript had obediently disappeared, and then returned into the
temple to dismiss King and me.
"Come with us," King urged him; but he shook his head, looking more
lionlike than ever, for in his yellow eyes now there was a blaze as of
He carried his head like a man who has looked fear in the face and laughed
"I have my assignation to keep," he said quietly.
"You mean with death?" King asked him, and he nodded.
"Don't be too sure!"
King's retort was confident, and his smile was like the surgeon's who
proposes to reassure his patient in advance of the operation. But the
Mahatma's mind was set on the end appointed for him, and there was neither
grief nor discontent in his voice as he answered.
"There is no such thing as being too sure."
"I shall use the telegraph, of course," King assured him. "If necessary to
save your life I shall have you arrested."
The Mahatma smiled.
"Have you money?" he asked pleasantly.
"I shall'nt need money. I can send an official telegram."
"I meant for your own needs," said the Mahatma.
"I think I know where to borrow a few rupees," King answered. "They'll
trust me for the railway tickets."
"Pardon me, my friend. It was my fault that your bag and clothes got
separated from you. You had money in the bag. That shall be adjusted. Never
mind how much money. Let us see how much is here."
That seemed a strange way of adjusting accounts, but there was logic in it
nevertheless. There would be no use in offering us more than was available,
and as for himself, he was naked except for the saffron smock. He had no
purse, nor any way of hiding money on his person.
He opened his mouth wide and made a noise exactly like a bronze bell. Some
sort of priest came running in answer to the summons and showed no surprise
when given peremptory orders in a language of which I did not understand one
Within two minutes the priest was back again bearing a tray that was
simply heaped with money, as if he had used the thing for a scoop to get the
stuff out of a treasure chest. There was all kinds — gold, silver,
paper, copper, nickel — as if those strange people simply threw into a
chest all that they received exactly as they received it.
King took a hundred-rupee note from the tray, and the Gray Mahatma waved
the rest aside. The priest departed, and a moment later I heard the clash and
chink of money falling on money; by the sound it fell quite a distance, as if
the treasure chest were an open cellar.
"Now," said the Gray Mahatma, placing a hand on the shoulders of each of
us. "Go, and forget. It is not yet time to teach the world our sciences.
India is not yet ripe for freedom. I urged them to move too soon. Go, ye two,
and tell none what ye have seen, for men will only call you fools and liars.
Above all, never seek to learn the secrets, for that means death — and
there are such vastly easier deaths! Good-bye."
He turned and was gone in a moment, stepping sidewise into the shadows. We
could not find him again, although we hunted until the temple priests came
and made it obvious that they would prefer our room to our company. They did
not exactly threaten us, but refused to answer questions, and pointed at the
open door, as if they thought that was what we were looking for.
So we sought the sunlight, which was as refreshing after the temple gloom
as a cold bath after heat, and turned first of all in the direction of Mulji
Singh's apothecary, hoping to find that Yasmini had lied, or had been
mistaken about that bag.
But Mulji Singh, although fabulously glad to see us, had no bag nor
anything to say about its disappearance. He would not admit that we had left
"You have been where men go mad, sahibs," was all the comment he
"Don't you understand that we'll protect you against these people?" King
For answer to that Mulji Singh hunted about among the shelves for a
minute, and presently set down a little white paper package on a corner of
"Do you recognize that, sahib?" he asked.
"Deadly aconite," said King, reading the label.
"Can you protect me against it?"
"You're safe if you let it alone," King answered unguardedly.
"That is a very wise answer, sahib," said Mulji Singh, and set the
aconite back on the highest shelf in the darkest corner out of reach.
So, as we could get nothing more out of Mulji Singh except a tonic that he
said would preserve us both from fever, we sought the telegraph office,
making as straight for it as the winding streets allowed. The door was shut.
With my ear to a hole in the shutters I could hear loud snores within. King
picked up a stone and started to thunder on the door with it.
The ensuing din brought heads to every upper window, and rows of other
heads, like trophies of a ghastly hunt, began to decorate the edges of the
roofs. Several people shouted to us, but King went on hammering, and at last
a sleepy telegraph babu, half-in and half-out of his black alpaca jacket,
opened to us.
"The wire is broken," he said, and slammed the door in our faces.
King picked up the stone and beat another tattoo.
"How long has the wire been broken?" he demanded.
"Who sent the last message?"
"Maharajah Jihanbihar sahib."
"In full or in code?"
He slammed the door again and bolted it, and whether or not he really fell
asleep, within the minute he was giving us a perfect imitation of a hog
snoring. What was more, the crowd began to take its cue from the babu, and a
roof-tile broke at our feet as a gentle reminder that we had the town's
permission to depart. Without caste-marks, and in those shabby, muddy, torn
clothes, we were obviously undesirables.
So we made for the railroad station, where, since we had money, none could
refuse to sell us third-class tickets. But, though we tried, we could not
send a telegram from there either, although King took the station babu to one
side and proved to him beyond argument that he knew the secret service signs.
The babu was extremely sorry, but the wire was down. The trains were being
run for the present on the old block system, one train waiting in a station
until the next arrived, and so on.
So, although King sent a long telegram in code from a junction before we
reached Lahore, nothing had been done about it by the time we had changed
into Christian clothes at our hotel and called on the head of the
Intelligence Department. And by then it was a day and a half since we had
seen the Gray Mahatma.
The best part of another day was wasted in consulting and convincing men
on whose knees the peace of India rested. They were naturally nervous about
invading the sacred privacy of Hindu temples, and still more so of
investigating Yasmini's doings in that nest of hers. There were men among
them who took no stock in such tales as ours anyhow — hard and fast
Scotch pragmatists, who doubted the sanity of any man who spoke seriously of
anything that they themselves had not heard, seen, smelt, felt and tasted.
Also there was one man who had been jealous of Athelstan King all his years
in the service, and he jumped at the chance of obstructing him at last.
After we had told our story at least twenty times, more and more men being
brought in to listen to it, who only served to increase incredulity and water
down belief, King saw fit to fling his even temper to the winds and try what
anger could accomplish. By that time there were eighteen of us, sitting
around a mahogany table at midnight, and King brought his fist down with a
crash that split the table and offended the dignity of than one man.
"Confound the lot of you!" he thundered. "I've been in the service twenty-
one years and I've repeatedly brought back scores of wilder tales than this.
But this is the first time that I've been disbelieved. I'm not in the service
now. So here's my ultimatum! You take this matter up — at once —
or I take it up on my own account! For one thing, I'll write a full account
in all the papers of your refusal to investigate. Suit yourselves!"
They did not like it; but they liked his alternative less; and there were
two or three men in the room, besides, who were secretly on King's side, but
hardly cared to betray their opinions in the face of so much opposition. They
did not care to seem too credulous. It was they who suggested with a half-
humorous air of concession that no harm could be done by sending a committee
of investigation to discover whether it were true that living men were held
for experimental purposes beneath that Tirthanker temple; and one by one the
rest yielded, somebody, however, imposing the ridiculous proviso that the
Brahmin priests must be consulted first.
So, what with one thing and another, and one delay and another, and
considering that the wire had been repaired and no less than thirty Brahmin
priests were in the secret, the outcome was scarcely surprising.
Ten of us, including four policemen, called on the Maharajah Jihanbihar
five full days after King and I had last seen the Mahatma; and after we had
wasted half a morning in pleasantries and jokes about stealing a ride on his
elephant, we rode in the Maharajah's two-horse landaus to the Tirthanker
temple, where a priest, who looked blankly amazed, consented at once to be
our guide through the sacred caverns.
But he said they were no longer sacred. He assured us they had not been
used at all for centuries. And with a final word of caution against cobras he
led the way, swinging a lantern with no more suggestion of anything unusual
than if he had been our servant seeing us home on a dark night.
He even offered to take us through the cobra tunnel, but an acting deputy
high commissioner turned on a flashlight and showed those goose-neck heads
all bobbing in the dark, and that put an end to all talk of that venture,
although the priest was cross-examined as to his willingness to go down
there, and said he was certainly willing, and everybody voted that "deuced
remarkable," but "didn't believe the beggar" nevertheless.
He showed us the "Pool of Terrors," filled with sacred alligators that he
assured us were fed on goats provided by the superstitious townsfolk. He said
that they were so tame that they would not attack a man, and offered to prove
it by walking in. Since that entailed no risk to the committee they permitted
him to do it, and he walked alone across the causeway that had given King and
me such trouble a few nights before. Far from attacking him, the alligators
turned their backs and swam away.
The committee waxed scornful and made numbers of jokes about King and me
of a sort that a man doesn't listen to meekly is a rule. So I urged the
committee to try the same trick, and they all refused. Then a rather bright
notion occurred to me, and I stepped in myself, treading gingerly along the
underwater causeway. And I was hardly in the water before the brutes all
turned and came hurrying back — which took a little of the steam out of
that committee of investigation. They became less free with their
So we all walked around the alligator pool by a passage that the priest
showed us, and one by one we entered all the caves in which King and I had
seen the fakirs and the victims undergoing torture.
The caves were the same, except that they were cleaner, and the ashes had
all been washed away. There was nobody in them; not one soul, nor even a sign
to betray that any one had been there for a thousand years.
There were the same cells surrounding the cavern in which the old fellow
had sat reading from a roll of manuscript; but the cells were absolutely
empty. I suggested taking flashlight photographs and fingerprint impressions
of the doors and walls. But nobody had any magnesium, and the policemen said
the doors might have been scrubbed in any case, so what was the use. And the
priest with the lantern sneered, and the others laughed with him, so that
King and I were made to look foolish once more.
Then we all went up to the temple courtyard, and descended the stairs
through the hole in the floor of the cupola-covered stone platform. And there
stood the lingam on its altar at the foot of the stairs, and there were the
doors just as we had left them, looking as if they had been pressed into the
molten stone by an enormous thumb. I thought we were going to be able to
prove something of our story at last.
But not so. The priest opened the first door by kicking on it with his
toe, and one by one we filed along the narrow passage in pitch darkness that
was broken only by the swinging lantern carried by the man in front and the
occasional flashes of an electric torch. King, one pace ahead of me, swore to
himself savagely all the way, and although I did not feel as keenly as he did
about it, because it meant a lot less to me what the committee might think, I
surely did sympathize with him.
If we had come sooner it was beyond belief that we should not have caught
those experts at their business, or at any rate in process of removing the
tools of their strange trade. There must have been some mechanism connected
with their golden light, for instance, but we could discover neither light
nor any trace of the means of making it. Naturally the committee refused to
believe that there had ever been any.
The caverns were there, just as we had seen them, only without their
contents. The granite table, on which we had seen Benares, London and New
York, was gone. The boxes and rolls of manuscript had vanished from the
cavern in which the little ex-fat man had changed lead into gold before our
eyes. The pit in the center of the cavern in which the fire-walkers had
performed, still held ashes, but the ashes were cold and had either been
slaked with water, or else water had been admitted into the pit from below.
At any rate, the pit was flooded, and nobody wanted the job of wading into it
to look for apparatus. So there may have been paraphernalia hidden under
those ashes for aught that I know. It was a perfectly ridiculous
investigation; its findings were not worth a moment's attention of any
genuine scientist. Subsequently, newspaper editors wrote glibly of the
gullibility of the human mind, with King's name and mine in full-sized
letters in the middle of the article.
About the only circumstance that the investigating committee could not
make jokes about was the cleanliness of all the passages and chambers. There
was no dust, no dirt anywhere. You could have eaten off the floor, and there
was no way of explaining how the dust of ages had not accumulated, unless
those caverns had been occupied and thoroughly cleaned within a short space
The air down there was getting foul already. There was no trace of the
ventilation that had been so obvious when King and I were there before.
Nevertheless, no trace could be found of any ventilating shaft; and that was
another puzzle — how to account for the cleanliness and lack of air
combined, added to the fact that such air as there was was still too fresh to
be centuries old.
One fat fool on the committee wiped the sweat from the back of his neck in
the lantern light and proposed at last that the committee should find that
King and I had been the victims of delusion — perhaps of hypnotism. I
asked him point blank what he knew about hypnotism. He tried to side-step the
question, but I pinned him down to it, and he had to confess that he knew
nothing about it whatever; whereat I asked each member of the committee
whether or not he could diagnose hypnotism, and they all had to plead
ignorance. So nobody seconded that motion.
King had lapsed into a sort of speechless rage. He had long been used to
having his bare word accepted on any point whatever, having labored all his
military years to just that end, craving that integrity of vision and
perception that is so vastly more than honesty alone, that the blatant
unbelief of these opinionative asses overwhelmed him for the moment.
There was not one man on the committee who had ever done anything more
dangerous than shooting snipe, nor one who had seen anything more
inexplicable than spots before his eyes after too much dinner. Yet they
mocked King and me, in a sort of way that monkeys in the tree-tops mock a
Their remarks were on a par with those the cave-man must have used when
some one came from over the sky-line and told them that fire could be made by
rubbing bits of wood together. They recalled to us what the Gray Mahatma had
said about Galileo trying to make the Pope believe that the earth moved
around the sun. The Pope threatened to burn Galileo for heresy; they only
offered to pillory us with public ridicule; so the world has gone forward a
"Let's go," said somebody at last. "I've had enough of this. We're
trespassing, as well as heaping indignity on estimable Hindus."
"Go!" retorted King. "I wish you would! Leave Ramsden and me alone in
here. There's a cavern we haven't seen yet. You've formed your opinions. Go
and publish them; they'll interest your friends."
He produced a flashlight of his own and led the way along the passage, I
following. The committee hesitated, and then one by one came after us, more
anxious, I think, to complete the fiasco than to unearth facts.
But the door that King tried to open would not yield. It was the only door
in all those caverns that had refused to swing open at the first touch, and
this one was fastened so rigidly that it might have been one with the frame
for all the movement our blows on it produced. Our guide swore he did not
know the secret of it, and our letter of authority included no permission to
break down doors or destroy property in any way at all.
It looked as though we were blocked, and the committee were all for the
air and leaving that door unopened. King urged them to go and leave it
— told them flatly that neither they nor the world would be any wiser
for anything whatever that they might do — was as beastly rude, in
fact, as he knew how to be; with the result that they set their minds on
seeing it through, for fear lest we should find something after all that
would serve for an argument against their criticism.
Neither King nor I were worried by the letter of the committee's orders,
and I went to look for a rock to break the door down with. They objected, of
course, and so did the priest, but I told them they might blame the violence
on me, and furthermore suggested that if they supposed they were able to
prevent me they might try. Whereat the priest did discover a way of opening
the door, and that was the only action in the least resembling the occult
that any of us saw that day.
There were so many shadows, and they so deep, that a knob or trigger of
some kind might easily have been hidden in the darkness beyond our view; but
the strange part was that there was no bolt to the door, nor any slot into
which a bolt could slide. I believe the door was held shut by the pressure of
the surrounding rock, and that the priest knew some way of releasing it.
We entered a bare cavern which was apparently an exact cube of about forty
feet. It was the only cavern in all that system of caverns whose walls,
corners, roof and floor were all exactly smooth. It contained no furniture of
But exactly in the middle of the floor, with hands and feet pointing to
the four corners of the cavern, was a grown man's skeleton, complete to the
last tooth. King had brought a compass with him, and if that was reasonably
accurate then the arms and legs of the skeleton were exactly oriented, north,
south, east and west; there was an apparent inaccuracy of a little less than
five degrees, which was no doubt attributable to the pocket instrument.
One of the committee members tried to pick a bone up, and it fell to
pieces in his fingers. Another man touched a rib, and that broke brittlely. I
picked up the broken piece of rib and held it in the rays of King's
"You remember?" said King in an undertone to me. "You recall the Gray
Mahatma's words? 'There will be nothing left for the alligators!' There's
neither fat nor moisture in that bone, it's like chalk. See?"
He squeezed it in his fingers and it crumbled.
"Huh! This fellow has been dead for centuries," said somebody. "He can't
have been a Hindu, or they'd have burned him. No use wondering who
hewas; there's nothing to identify him with — no hair, no
clothing — nothing but dead bone."
"Nothing! Nothing whatever!" said the priest with a dry laugh, and began
kicking the bones here and there all over the cavern. They crumbled as his
foot struck them, and turned to dust as he trod on them — all except
the teeth. As he kicked the skull across the floor the teeth scattered, but
King and I picked up a few of them, and I have mine yet — two molars
and two incisors belonging to a man, who to my mind was as much an honest
martyr as any in Fox's book.
"Well, Mr. King," asked one of the committee in his choicest note of
sarcasm, "have you any more marvels to exhibit, or shall we adjourn?"
"Adjourn by all means," King advised him.
"We know it all, eh?"
"Truly, you know it all," King answered without a smile.
Then speaking sidewise in an undertone to me:
"And you and I know nothing. That's a better place to start from, Ramsden.
I don't know how you feel, but I'm going to track their science down until
I'm dead or master of it. The very highest knowledge we've attained is
ignorance compared to what these fellows showed us. I'm going to discover
their secret or break my neck!"